Recent activity in the assessment field has seen a push toward Formative Assessments and their value to the education of students. While this topic might require a book to properly cover, I will attempt to provide one piece of what formative assessment is and how it can be used and how it might be useful.
First of all, formative assessment is an assessment for learning and not an assessment of learning. Consider the following two multiple choice items and the responses:
|What is 6 + 2:
|What is 6 + 2:
The two item stems are identical, but the response options are different. Let’s look at the first item’s response options. Based on a student’s choice of a correct answer, we can assume a student understands the principle of addition (6 + 2 = 8). However, if a student selects 21, -9, or Elephant, we can assume the student does not understand the principles of addition. These types of items are often called distractors. But what further information can we glean from a student’s incorrect answer in the first item? What common misconception does the student hold if they answer 21? How about -9? And what about Elephant? I don’t think we can know anything about the student other than the student does not understand how to add. This is simply an assessment of learning; it tells you if a student understands addition or not.
How about the second item’s response options? Do the incorrect responses provide any information about a common misconception that might lead to an incorrect response? You can probably already guess the answer: Yes. Consider option “b.” A response of “b” might indicate that a student understands the plus sign as a multiplication sign. Six multiplied by 2 does equal 12. For response “c” it appears the student understands the plus sign as a division sign. Six divided by 2 equals 3. Even the last response option provides some information. Six minus 2 equals four; the student likely understands a plus sign as a minus sign. This is an assessment for learning; it helps instructors/teachers to pinpoint misconceptions or a lack of knowledge in a particular area, which can then be used to correct the misconception or provide the necessary knowledge. This last point is key in that assessment is only formative if the information gained is used to further student learning.
This is one simple example how a formative assessment can provide information that is used for learning rather information that simply an assessment of learning. The feedback loop between teacher and student is essential.
What is needed to advance in the field of formative assessments is a working model of learning for the subject matter we wish to assess. A model of learning can describe the learning process itself. In our example above, research on the development of mathematical reasoning in relation to addition is needed to provide the necessary background to develop a formative assessment. Research can provide a model of learning that shows how students develop mathematical addition reasoning and a good formative assessment can assess not only a student’s progress toward development, but also the specific learning barriers they need to overcome.
Formative assessment is not only for individual classroom assessment, but can also include large scale assessment.