Formative assessment is not a new idea in education. In fact, I suspect that teachers, parents, coaches, and bosses had been using the concept of formative assessment long before it was given that name and long before any formal training or research was devoted to the topic. It’s intuitive. Whether I’m teaching my kid to hit a curve ball or my dog to sit down, I monitor his or her practice in order to know how close he or she is to the goal and in order to know what I should say or do next.
So why has formative assessment become such a buzz word?
Researchers Stephen and Jan Chappuis offer one reason:
One result of No Child Left Behind has been a surge in student testing—much of it voluntary, going well beyond what federal law or state assessment systems require. Many schools and districts administer tests with names like benchmark, short-cycle, and interim assessments to predict student performance on high-stakes tests and to identify students needing additional help. This increasingly popular level of testing has contributed to the widening scope of what is called formative assessment. (Full article here).
At least in the United States, the increasing focus on formative assessment seems to have its roots in the standardized testing movement. And as many of us undergo a standardized test revolution via Common Core, schools and teachers are feeling pressure to formatively assess more and differently.
But does our assessment culture support a learning culture? Definitions for “formative assessment” abound, but they almost always involve the core idea of assessment for learning, or assessment used to monitor student progress and inform next instructional steps. However, many educators, parents, and even policy-makers are worried that our culture of testing has replaced, rather than reinforced, a culture of learning in our schools. According to Peg Tyre, this push back has reached a crescendo as all stakeholders question what we get in return from the testing craze. Many educators and parents complain that the focus on standardized tests has taken the thinking out of school and replaced it with test-taking strategies and surface-level learning.
We see hope, though. Researchers like David Conley have been asserting the importance of thinking skills and other traits like perseverance and adaptability for several years. You can check out some of his thoughts on college and career readiness here.
Imagine the potential we could unlock in our students if we spent less time drilling students for standardized test performance and spent more time formatively assessing the skills, attitudes, and knowledge Conley says really matter for life beyond K-12. Can we measure and track growth of students’  ability to use problem solving strategies, conduct research, interpret results, and construct quality work products?
This week we’ll be talking about active processing of learning, of which formative assessment is a foundational part. As we ask students to process what they learn by speaking, writing, collaborating, and creating, we can shift from deliverers of information to collectors of information. We free ourselves to get into the minds of our students by listening to and reading what they have to say, which means we can provide feedback in the moment and adjust our instruction accordingly. Hopefully we can put the learning back in assessment for learning.