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Formative Assessment

By Sarah Hampton

In my last post, I talked about how artificial intelligence can improve standardized summative assessments. In the next three posts, I want to: 1) consider how focusing on formative assessments could be even more helpful, 2) explore why AI is well-suited for it, and 3) showcase how one AI tool is using formative assessment to transform math homework.

For this post, let’s begin by comparing summative and formative assessments and the value they bring to the education table.

High stakes standardized summative assessments and end-of-course exams are designed to give states, districts, and schools broad data based on average scores of many students to help them evaluate program effectiveness. While these assessments may also give a snapshot of a student’s overall understanding in a course and hold value for student placement the following year, the resulting data is not intended to help students learn more about the subject. For example, Jonathan Supovitz states in his article, Is High-Stakes Testing Working?, “These studies have typically found that data [from high-stakes assessment] provide general information about student performance but lack the nuance to provide fine-bore instructional guidance.”

On the other hand, formative assessments are designed to give a snapshot of a student’s specific content understanding with the goal of improving student learning based on the results.

“Teachers and schools can use formative assessment to identify student understanding, clarify what comes next in their learning, trigger and become part of an effective system of intervention for struggling students, inform and improve the instructional practice of individual teachers or teams, help students track their own progress toward attainment of standards, motivate students by building confidence in themselves as learners, fuel continuous improvement processes across faculties, and, thus, drive a school’s transformation.” Maximizing the Power of Formative Assessments

Note: End of term or end of the year grades given by a teacher are also a summative assessment, but are different than standardized tests and have different issues. Those issues are beyond the scope of this post.

While reading more about types of assessments, I realized one of the reasons I feel the tension between teaching for students and teaching for tests is because we [policy makers, administrators, teachers, families, etc.] keep focusing on summative assessments to do a job they were never intended to do. If our goal is to improve student learning, then we should use the tool designed for that and leverage more formative assessment. As stated in chapter five of New Assessments and Environments for Knowledge Building, “Assessment reform requires a radical shift from a ‘summative assessment which ranks individuals’ to a ‘formative assessment of the learning environment that helps all the students reach the next level of learning.’”

Formative assessments are really powerful when used the right way. Take a look at these two studies.

The authors of Using Formative Assessment and Metacognition to Improve Student Achievement share, “In a series of landmark review articles, Black and Wiliam (1998a, 1998b, 2009) dramatically highlighted formative assessment’s contribution to precollege student learning. They concluded that achievement gains generated by using formative assessment across a range of content domains were among the largest ever reported for education interventions. Notably, the largest gains were realized among low achievers.” Of the over 250 publications Black and William analyzed, approximately 20 demonstrated effect sizes that would represent “a gain that is roughly double the average growth U.S. children in the upper primary to lower secondary grades would be expected to make on standardized tests in a school year.” (The Impact of Formative Assessment and Learning Intentions on Student Achievement)

Similarly, the authors of Formative Assessment and Next-Generation Assessment Systems: Are We Losing an Opportunity? highlight a review of 196 studies on feedback (an essential component of formative assessments) which “reported that feedback had an average effect size of 0.79 standard deviation – an effect greater than student prior cognitive ability, socioeconomic background, and reduced class size (Hattie & Timperley, 2007, p. 83).”

Notice that I said when used the right way. According to Black and Wiliam (2009), effective formative assessment involves all of these:

  • teachers making adjustments to teaching and learning in response to assessment evidence
  • students receiving feedback about their learning with advice on what they can do to improve
  • students participating in the process through self-assessment

In addition, Valerie Shute explains in Focus on Formative Feedback that feedback should be:

  • non evaluative
  • supportive
  • timely
  • specific
  • valid
  • objective
  • focused
  • clear

Dr. Shute goes on to give an analogy comparing formative feedback to ‘a good murder’ that made me laugh: “Formative feedback might be likened to ‘a good murder’ in that effective and useful feedback depends on three things: (a) motive (the student needs it), (b) opportunity (the student receives it in time to use it), and (c) means (the student is able and willing to use it).”

Effective teachers continually use different strategies for formative assessment. “All too often, the term ‘formative assessment’ conjures images of quizzes and tests, while in reality, formative assessment is a process used by teachers and students during instruction that provides feedback to adjust ongoing teaching and learning.” (Formative Assessment and Next-Generation Assessment Systems: Are We Losing an Opportunity?) Formative assessment could be something as quick and simple as reading body language and then intervening with prompts or asking good questions and then offering constructive feedback. At times, it might be more sophisticated like analyzing data from an ungraded quiz that incorporates student regulated components and then using the results to determine what content will be taught the next day and how it should be approached.

I feel empowered knowing that there are many ways I can impact student learning daily by incorporating formative assessments. This is something within my control that’s been shown to work!

As part of completing lesson plans at my school, teachers are encouraged to plan the types of formative assessment they will use throughout the week. I appreciate the reminder to intentionally incorporate different strategies. These links are a few of the practical resources I like.

In addition, you may find Kip Glazer’s recommendations particularly helpful for virtual learning in her post called Why Assessment?

In the next two posts, we’ll look at how AI can be used for formative assessment and then explore ASSISTments, a successful AI math homework tool.

Thank you to James Lester for reviewing this post. We appreciate your work in AI and your work to bring educators and researchers together on this topic.

The photo in this post is by Tamarcus Brown on Unsplash

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