A modest proposal …

Is 'formative assessment' the most appropriate term for evaluating and improving academic performance? │2 min read

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I’m worried about the term 'formative assessment.' The term refers to an important idea - using assessment data DURING learning to make a change. But so many people use the term so differently, I fear that the important, core idea got lost.

In my district a decision was made quite a while ago to include the term formative assessment in on-line gradebooks. I understand why that decision was made, and well-meaning folks did it for good reasons. But one of the side effects was that the term 'formative assessment' now means “an assignment that is worth fewer points” to students.

Dylan Wiliam is one of my favorite education researchers, and one of the people who “originated” the term formative assessment. A while back, someone asked a him “What’s the biggest mistake you made as a researcher?” on Twitter, and his reaction was fascinating:

I like this idea: maybe including the word 'assessment' in the term 'formative assessment' wasn’t a great idea in the first place. Here’s my modest proposal: let’s replace the term 'formative assessment' with two terms: 'responsive teaching' and 'student practice'.

Responsive teaching could refer examples of teachers using assessment data (exit tickets, short quiz results, etc.) to make a change in their teaching.

Student practice could refer to any time students use feedback to revise their work, try again, etc.

I don’t expect many folks to really stop using the term 'formative assessment,' but I think the terms: 'Responsive Teaching' and 'Student Feedback' might be more descriptive and clear in most situations. Below is a slide I’ve used during discussions about all this – please feel free to steal!

(Note: thanks to Alex Bahe for letting me swipe a couple graphics).

Update:

An expanded version of this blog post appears as a chapter in:
Assessing Undergraduate Learning in Psychology: Strategies for Measuring and Improving Student Performance, – Nolan, S. A., Hakala, C. M., & Landrum, R. E. (Eds.). (2021). Assessing undergraduate learning in psychology: Strategies for measuring and improving student performance. American Psychological Association. https://doi.org/10.1037/0000183-000). See Chapter 4 “Replacing the Term Formative Assessment: A Modest Proposal.“

I stumbled across this article: “Formative Assessment” on the npj Science of Learning blog (where I also blog sometimes) in April 2021. In this blog post, Dylan Wiliam says: “we realized that using the term ‘formative’ to describe the position an assessment occupied in a course of study, or the assessment itself, represented … a “category mistake”- ascribing to something a property it cannot have - since the same assessment procedure could yield evidence that could be used summatively or formatively … there is, therefore, no such thing as a formative assessment. There are, however, assessments whose results can be used formatively.” 


Originally published by Not for Points.

Poster Image by cottonbro from Pexels.

Rob McEntarffer

Assessment/Evaluation Specialist, Lincoln Public Schools