Formative Assessment: The Missing Piece?

In light of today's high-stakes testing atmosphere and the sense that there is so much content to cover that teachers just need to push on and hope the students "get it," many educators may be using formative assessments, but are they using them effectively?. Is there a missing piece? In the report "Understanding How Teachers Engage in Formative Assessment" from the Spring 2010 edition of Teaching and Learning, Sondergeld, Bell and Leusner discuss this and point out the cyclical nature of formative assessments.

"Formative assessment continues to receive increased attention in the field of education as being a cost-effective method of improving student learning (Black & Wiliam, 2007). However, defining formative assessment is problematic since it is often viewed as any use of assessment to support instruction. In fact, when teachers hear about formative assessment for the first time, they often say, "I do that already." We define formative assessment as a process a teacher uses to elicit evidence of student learning that is analyzed and used to adjust instruction to better meet student learning needs. This vision of formative assessment involves more than adding "extra" assessment events to existing teaching and learning. It also requires teachers to use the information they collect to modify instruction. In classrooms where formative assessment is used with the primary function of supporting learning, the divide between instruction and assessment becomes blurred. Thus, formative assessment is an ongoing, cyclical process woven into the life of the classroom (Thompson & Wiliam, 2007).

Formative assessment requires teachers to deliberately elicit evidence of student thinking, make decisions about what to do with that evidence, and then implement appropriate changes in instruction. This is not done every six or nine weeks. It is done every day for the entire school year"

So it may be a good practice to keep checking in with ourselves and ask the question: are we really using our formative assessments to modify instruction and meet the needs of our students, or are we just pushing on to make sure we cover what needs to be done for the summative evaluation at the end of the road? Maybe if we take the time to properly use formative assessments every day, we'll be able to spend less time remediating students who underperform on high-stakes summative assessments.


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