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Salem High School Earth Science teacher, Wes Lester, recently sent me this link to a post on Edutopia about Formative Assessment (AFL). I found it to be an excellent post and worth reading, so I left a comment stating this. Because I left a comment I then received an email every time someone else posted a comment. One such comment made me realize that some people out there do not fully understand Formative Assessment or AFL.

Here was the comment:

Yes, I think formative assessment is important however it is not the only measure of a student's success. Unfortunately we are currently in an environment that places so much emphasis on formative and standardized testing. In my school, it seems as if the formal testing never ends. They are tested in September (a formative), October (SRI), January (formative), March (state test), April (SRI), and finally in May (formative) not to mention the unit test required by the district. The structure, lenght and environment that is created around these test are such that students become desensitised. In an effort to help make this over testing environment tolerable, I must come up with alternative ways of conducting my own assessments.

It has gotten to a point that the students moan when they are told that it's a testing day. Several pupils have even asked why there is so much testing. I candidly explained that testing won't go away and that even when you get older there are yet more test to come. (driver's test, SAT's, professional test, etc.) This explanation seemed to make it more palatable. In truth, I feel that these children are tested because of the demographics of the district and past performances. Neighboring counties within the same state don't administer nearly as many assessments.


This person has confused Formative Assessment with an official testing program. It's probably not this teacher's fault as it sounds as though the school district has bought into a specific benchmark assessment program and called it formative assessment. While benchmark tests and testing programs can be used as formative assessments, effective Formative Assessment is what occurs in a classroom each and everyday.

Formative Assessment is graded and it is ungraded. It is formal and it is informal. It is big and it is small. It is ANYTHING that provides the teacher with feedback on how well students are learning, and it is ANYTHING that provides students with feedback so they can guide their learning. It should not lead to students asking "why there is so much testing" or "moan[ing] when they are told that it's a test day." It should not be "the,,, measure of a student's success" but rather an indicator of how they are learning so that they can end up having success.

I'm glad that our school is encouraging teachers to view Formative Assessment as a tool/philosophy that can look different in each and every classroom.

Click here to read the entire post from Edutopia.

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Comment by Scott Habeeb on April 13, 2010 at 12:48pm
Justin - I understand your question. It's quite possible to have a graded assignment that is formative, though. For example, I might give a quiz on some content and grade it. That grade - or feedback - will tell the student what they know or don't know. Then, after a day or so of reviewing, I might choose to give a summative test on the same information. I can now choose to drop the quiz grade if the student did better. Or, before a summative test ever occurred I could have given the student a retake opportunity on the quiz. By using their first graded as a guideline for how they should study, the quiz has become an Assessment FOR Learning.

What makes something formative is HOW it is used. If the assessment, whether graded or not, is used in a manner that leads to learning, then it is formative. A summative assessment is one that simply tells us what one knew or didn't knew, but doesn't allow for future learning. Basically, if the assessment is used as a check-up then it's formative and if it's used as an autopsy it's summative.

Here are a couple of links that might help with the concept:
http://salemafl.ning.com/profiles/blogs/3-perspectives-on-an-afl
http://salemafl.ning.com/profiles/blogs/afl-more-than-just-letting
Comment by Michael Rulon on April 13, 2010 at 12:00pm
Formative assessment and instructional strategies are inseparable to some degree. Two statements help to define this idea further. First, good instructional strategies, or activities are not necessarily good formative assessment, but Second, good formative assessment is always an extension of a good instructional strategy or activity.
The difference between a great activity and great formative assessment is the answer the teacher gives to the following 5 questions:
1. What was the purpose of the strategy / activity? Was it to activate prior knowledge, create an opportunity for reflection, or gather information?
2. How did the strategy / activity align the student’s understanding of content or skills connected to the learning target?
3. How will the student’s responses to the strategy / activity be gathered as evidence of their learning?
4. How will the information from the evidence be used to help individual students in their learning?
5. How will the information from the evidence be used to help guide your instruction?
If the teacher can answer each of the questions from an assessment perspective then more likely then not the activity will serve as substantial formative assessment.
Comment by Justin Scoggin on April 13, 2010 at 11:37am
Scott - I am interested in understanding your statement that formative assessment can be graded. I understand what you mean when you say that any result that helps us see student learning is formative, but I am not sure that I agree. I see your point of view from a larger, broader perspective, that over the long run anything that helps us and students learn more and better is formative. But, when you narrow in on a unit or semester or even a school year, then even if a specific assessment helps us see learning, if it is graded it becomes summative because students don't have another opportunity to improve that performance. If students have an opportunity to improve performance, they are given marks, which improve along with improved performance. Grades, however, reflect the "final" performance for that unit or semester or school year and, in my humble understanding of the matter, cannot be improved.

I agree with your analysis above that using benchmark testing as formative assessment misses the point of formative assessment, but I would like to hear your thoughts on the point I have raised here.

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