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Improving Student Learning: The Present and Future of Formative Assessment

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March 4th, 2016

It’s often referenced but not always practiced nor understood.

The term “formative assessment” gets thrown around a great deal in educational contexts. Initiate a conversation with a half-dozen educators and you’ll likely hear six different definitions and nearly as many viewpoints on proper implementation.

That assessing student learning progress in a formative manner within the classroom can produce improved student outcomes represents a widely-held belief among educators. What’s less universal, though, is a shared view of what formative assessment truly entails.

How can we achieve better clarity around formative assessment so that education leaders can further emphasize this teaching and learning strategy within their districts?

What Is Formative Assessment?

Change is never easy, particularly when it necessitates altering long-held habits. Consider a longtime track coach who’s spent years sharing quarter-mile splits from a stopwatch as his team participates in the mile run. What if instead that coach assessed progress and provided specific feedback mid-run to improve each runner’s overall performance during that run?

This notion of providing real-time feedback to improve outcomes gets to the heart of formative assessment’s core benefit. When you can carry out assessment during an instruction session and immediately utilize the information you gather to make teaching adjustments that improve student performance, that qualifies as formative assessment.

In part, formative assessment lacks one universally-accepted meaning because it can involve a diverse collection of practices – both formal and informal – so long as the means to the end results in improved learning. Definition variations include:

While specific definitions may vary depending on whom you ask, consensus emerges with a theme for formative assessment: Feedback during instruction prompting an action that enhances student learning.

What You May Not Know About Formative Assessment

Traditionally, assessment of student learning was solely outcome-focused. Summative assessment refers to evaluation conducted to make a determination regarding level of achievement or competence. When a track coach simply records times, he is assessing his team summatively. The coach learns which runners are fastest and which enjoyed improvement since the previous time trial, yet doesn’t impart knowledge enhancing mid-run performance.

As it pertains to classrooms, summative assessment enables educators to gauge how much students have learned at a particular time, such as following the completion of an instructional unit. Examples range from midterm exams to report papers to final projects. Instructional leaders can measure results against benchmarks or draw comparisons among students, but the benefits don’t extend to actually improving performance.

Although summative assessment still serves a valuable role within education systems, the pendulum has swung towards inclusion of a formative approach as well – and for good reason. Numerous empirical studies – involving thousands of students – have established a strong correlation between formative assessment and heightened academic achievement. Moreover, the value of formative assessment skyrockets when educators succeed at securing student buy-in and involvement in their own formative learning.

Key benefits commonly associated with formative assessment include:

  • Affords educators the opportunity to offer more frequent feedback to students
  • Enables educators to adjust instruction based upon that feedback
  • Provides students with regular updates regarding their learning progress
  • Empowers students to actively manage and adapt their own learning

Status Update: Where Are We With Formative Assessment?

We’ve come a long way with formative assessment since Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam released their landmark research nearly 20 years ago, steering education leaders toward a more formative approach. While interpretations of what constitutes formative assessment still vary among educators, few argue the big-picture viewpoint that this technique is gaining prevalence in our nation’s classrooms.

Whereas previously a track coach might have limited assessment to clocking times with a stopwatch, nowadays that coach provides feedback regarding breathing rhythm and running stride as his team circles the track. The result? Runners can adjust their strategy mid-run and improve their performance during that race.

In the classroom, instructional leaders are increasingly equipping their teaching staffs with the ability to employ formative methods. Techniques aimed at garnering feedback during instruction to enhance subsequent student learning include:

  • Observations during class discussions
  • Self and peer evaluations
  • Student practice presentations
  • Student learning journals

Still, assessment that’s only summative continues to exist in many classrooms. And lingering misconceptions regarding formative assessment remain, as educators often focus on correct answers and test results without delving deeper to assess where students have learning gaps and what exactly those gaps might be.

The Future of Formative Assessment

Are you supporting your teachers with utilizing formative assessment in the classroom? That’s the question many education leaders must ask themselves as we peer into our crystal ball and attempt to anticipate the future of this strategy.

As with many future outcomes, the fate of formative assessment rests with technological advancement. Effective technology can alleviate much of the mystery currently clouding it. While gathering feedback and making adjustments based on breathing rhythm and running stride represent a starting point, a track coach can offer greater insight to his team by having runners wear heart rate monitors and GPS training watches during the run.

In the classroom, the future requires delivery of more instantaneous formative feedback. Even when educators recognize the importance of formative assessment, delays in obtaining the necessary feedback make responses stale and less effective. Students practicing wrong learning cements that learning for them, makes it harder to “practice correct form” or remember concepts, and impedes future learning for math and other subjects where concepts build on one another. This is where data and assessment software aids the cause.

Illuminate Education‘s DnA student assessment system enables educators to garner quick feedback mid-lesson or before moving on to the next concept by creating an “On-The-Fly” assessment. The result: Teachers can instantly utilize formative data to determine which lesson plans are successful and make necessary adjustments, judge how to pace the next lesson and establish flexible grouping of students. It’s formative assessment at its best.

By coupling a formative approach with a respected assessment technology partner, your district can achieve better clarity with formative assessment, benefiting generations of students for years to come.


At Illuminate Education we intend to be your school district’s comprehensive provider of Web-based products and services offering innovative data solutions. Serving the K-12 education market, our turnkey data-focused software and services currently assist more than 1,200 school districts across the United States.

Ready to discover your one-stop-shop for all your district’s educational data needs? We’re here to talk.

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