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CHAPTER 1:

Formative Assessment and Assessment for Learning

CHAPTER 1

Formative Assessment and Assessment for Learning

1

CHAPTER 1:

Formative Assessment and Assessment for Learning

Innovations that include strengthening the practice of formative assessment produce significant and often substantial learning gains. —Black & Wiliam, 1998b, p. 140

his conclusion, from Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam’s comprehensive review of research on formative assessment practices, has changed the face of assessment today. It is in large part responsible for the widespread focus in education on the particular kind of assessment known as “formative.” Their research review (1998a) examined studies that collectively encompassed kindergarteners to college students; represented a range of subject areas including reading, writing, social studies, mathematics, and science; and were conducted in numerous countries throughout the world, including the United States. The gains reported in the studies they describe are among the largest found for any educational intervention. Typical effect sizes were between 0.4 and 0.7. In other words, the achievement gains realized by students whose teachers rely on formative assessment can range from 15 to 25 percentile points, or two to four grade equivalents, on commonly used standardized achievement test score scales. In broader terms, this kind of score gain, if applied to performance on recent international assessments, would move the United States’s rank from the middle of the pack of 42 nations tested to the top five (Black & Wiliam, 1998b). An additional outcome common among the studies they analyzed is that certain formative assessment practices greatly increased the achievement of low-performing students, in some cases to the point of approaching that of high-achieving students. Not surprisingly, a plethora of formative assessment

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Seven Strategies of Assessment for Learning

programs and products has surfaced, due in part to the achievement gains and gap-closing powers reported by Black and Wiliam and other researchers. The adjective formative now appears frequently in titles of commercially prepared tests and item banks, interim and benchmark tests, short-cycle assessments, and classroom assessments. Does calling a product or practice “formative” make it so? Are all of the tests and practices labeled as “formative” truly formative? And most importantly, what is it about formative that gives it its power? What led to the gains these researchers uncovered?

What Is Formative Assessment?
First let’s look at what is and what isn’t formative. For Black and Wiliam, and for many other experts in the field, formative assessment is not an instrument or an event, but a collection of practices with a common feature: they all lead to some action that improves learning. Well-known educational researchers emphasize this point when they describe what is at the heart of formative assessment: “Formative assessment, therefore, is essentially feedback (Ramaprasad, 1983) both to the teachers and to the pupil about present understanding and skill development in order to determine the way forward” (Harlen & James, 1997, p. 369). “[Formative assessment] refers to assessment that is specifically intended to provide feedback on performance to improve and accelerate learning” (Sadler, 1998, p. 77). “An assessment is formative to the extent that information from the assessment is fed back within the system and actually used to improve the performance of the system in some way” (Wiliam & Leahy, 2007, p. 31). “Formative assessment is defined as assessment carried out during the instructional process for the purpose of improving teaching or learning. . . . What makes formative assessment formative is that it is immediately used to make adjustments so as to form new learning” (Shepard, 2008, p. 281).

The common thread woven throughout formative assessment research, articles, and books bears...
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