Formative assessment, while not a new concept by any means, has been receiving a lot of attention recently due to discussions regarding student learning loss and the need for more digitized solutions for remote learners.
There’s been discussion in recent years about what formative assessment truly is. According to the Council of Chief State School Officers, formative assessment is the “planned, ongoing process used by all students and teachers during learning and teaching to elicit and use evidence of student learning to improve student understanding of intended disciplinary learning outcomes and support students to become self-directed learners.”
Ultimately, in the classroom, a teacher’s instructional action that is framed by a learning objective, skill, concept, or standard that invites students to demonstrate progress or mastery toward that established goal is considered formative assessment. This invites the notion that countless teacher and student interactions can be designated as an assessment tool. But what actually makes formative assessment one of the most important tools in an educator’s instructional practice?
Why formative assessment is so important
Before outlining formative assessment’s undeniable importance, context regarding assessments as a whole is warranted. Oftentimes, schools use different types of assessment to inform instructional decisions at various levels of the school culture (i.e., classroom level, school level, district level, etc.).
Some of the more common are diagnostic, interim, summative, and, as aforementioned, formative. However, many schools struggle to pull important insights from the collected assessment data suite in a timely fashion making educators interpreting them extremely “data rich, but information poor.”
It is important that teachers do not dive into giving assessments (and arguably administrators in implementing them) without an effective plan that outlines the different reasons for the assessments. This is not to imply that assessments besides formative in practice are not important. On the contrary, “other assessments are needed to ‘provide a multi-faceted view of learning at an individual class, district, and state level.’” However, without a clear connection and purpose between each implemented assessment type, the phrase “Why am I learning and/or doing this?” becomes much harder for educators to answer.
The clear connection comes from the granular, learning objective level. These objectives are crafted by educators based on the various standards and skills students need to master, and they appear across the different assessments students take to provide optimal exposure and practice.
When developing a balanced assessment system, educators should know that there is a larger emphasis placed on formative assessment. This is because formative assessments are typically lower stakes and represent a more nuanced, manageable snapshot of student learning (i.e., an individual or group of skills and standards). Their implementation builds upon the individual, successive key moments of learning that prepare student for larger, more high-stakes assessments. From informal avenues such as giving students a prompt and inviting them to give a “thumbs up or a thumbs down,” to more formal options such as giving an end-of-unit task or quiz, formative assessments and their results ensure that all interactions within the classroom are focused on addressing student instructional needs specifically.
Meeting students where they are and highlighting their areas of strengths and need ensure that educators are providing students instruction that is informed, meaningful, and specific. It also allows educators to be reflective practitioners, honing and improving their methodologies and instructional practices to scaffold student learning and assist students with reaching their potential.
Why teachers should implement formal assessment
In addition to being structured to identify students’ instructional needs, formative assessment provides real, authentic teacher-student interactions. In the past, assessment has been an ominous term that has imparted anxiety and demotivation to students and teachers. Yet, with formative assessment, there can be countless benefits that combat these reservations. Especially when considering newer edtech and digitization avenues, formative assessments can be more accessible, easy to implement, and versatile. With newer, technologically-enhanced item types, subject areas that may have been too difficult to formulate traditional assessments after in the past (music, art, etc.), now have a place within a school’s assessment suite.
Teachers are not the only benefactors of this assessment type. Students can experience a myriad of benefits as well. Formative assessments are crafted or planned to meet students at their current achievement level, pinpointing the specific areas of need with subject-specific skills, concepts, and learning objectives. Depending on their format and implementation, assessments can help with engaging and motivating students in their learning. And, with a push for more student-directed learning, students can be active participants in the development of their assessments, providing a means through which they can take ownership of their progress.
Ultimately, a formative route makes assessments purposefully actionable for both students and teachers instead of something that merely “happens” to them as a requirement. Both students and teachers can take an empowered role, directing learning toward a path that assists with building classroom rapport and an enthusiastic desire to learn.
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