Recently, I was lucky enough to attend a two day seminar presented by Dylan Wiliam. He is a well known author, who along with Paul Black, wrote a 2001 paper that seemed, at the time revolutionary in terms of the way teachers were thinking about assessment, more specifically, formative assessment. The basis of their case was that :
"standards are raised only by changes which are put into direct effect by teachers and pupils in classrooms. There is a body of firm evidence that formative assessment is an essential feature of classroom work and that development of it can raise standards. We know of no other way of raising standards for which such a strong prima facie case can be made on the basis of evidence of such large learning gains." (Black and Wiliam, Inside the Black Box Raising Standards Through Classroom Assessment 2001)
So what is formative assessment?
It is a range of formal but more often informal procedures employed by teachers during the learning process in order to modify their teaching so that the learning activities match the needs of their students and so, improve student learning outcomes. This means that the teacher is constantly checking, if you will, that what they are teaching is pitched at the right level. What they have planned may be too easy...or too difficult and so needs to be modified in some way. It happens on an individual and group level as well and may be as simple as spending extra time with a group of students who need extra help while the rest of the class carries on, or instantly raising the level of challenge for others.
It is what all good teachers do constantly and becomes a part of what we know and consider to be good practice. There are many, many techniques of formative assessment and when you are in our classrooms, you will see it happening all of the time, through questioning, observing, simple tests, conversation, feedback...
Interestingly, this is what parents do all the time as well when you are making decisions about what best suits your child and your observations on their learning that causes you concern or delight!
Formative is not the only form of assessment we use. Summative assessment happens after the learning has taken place. It is often used for the purposes of external accountability and its ability to feed directly back in the learning and teaching cycle is limited. There is no opportunity for students to go back and modify their efforts in order to achieve a higher outcome.
We use some forms of summative assessment at Bradbury. The International Schools Assessment (ISA) test is one example. Student sit the test in October, it is sent off to be marked externally and then we get the results in around January. For most students, their learning has grown, developed and changed markedly since sitting the test and a different result would occur should the student sit the test again in January. No feedback is given to a student on how they did or how they could improve their score. It is for this reason that we feel formative assessment is the most powerful and summative test results only offer a 'snapshot' of that child's performance on that day.
However, the results are useful in order to give us an indication of learning trends and how our students are achieving against other students in international schools around the world, i.e. the tests are externally norm referenced.
We triangulate all of our assessment results, both summative and formative, informal and formal, in order to build up a good picture of our students and their learning needs. It is never just a case of one test gives us a whole view, we need a range of assessment strategies in our classrooms that are used effectively and raise levels of achievement. There are other types of assessment too, diagnostic and ipsative and both have their own purposes and use in the classroom.
You may be interested in reading the article that began the move towards a stronger emphasis on formative assessment. It was written some time ago, however, the the principles and beliefs espoused are still true today.