Assessment Insights

A Closer Look at Balanced Assessment Systems: Formative Assessment

[fa icon="calendar"] July, 2017 / by Press Room

Press Room

It’s safe to say that educators and administrators at all levels support the idea of a balanced assessment system. But what do those words mean? What does such a system look like? We’ve given a lot of thought to this and other aspects of the future of educational assessment.

Although we share the same goals and concepts, we find that people often use different terms to describe the various aspects of assessment. Here at Measured Progress, we’re trying to create consistent definitions of the terms and help promote a clear understanding of each assessment type’s purpose. That’s why we created an infographic that defines the 4 main components of a balanced assessment system:

  • Formative assessment practices
  • Benchmark assessments
  • Interim assessments
  • State accountability assessment

We explored interim assessments in a previous post. Now we’re diving a little deeper into the element of formative assessment. You can read about our complete vision of a balanced assessment system.

Formative assessment is not a test!

We have an editor who reminds us to insert a noun after the phrase “formative assessment” in many uses. “Teachers use a formative assessment process,” for example. Why? Because we maintain that the term “formative assessment” refers to a range of activities that teachers employ during instruction. It’s an ongoing, multi-step instructional process; one step in that process is collecting evidence of student learning relevant to a current learning target. In our view, you can’t provide teachers with “a formative assessment.” Rather, to gather evidence of student learning, a teacher can use a variety of techniques and resources that comprise their formative assessment “toolboxes.” Evidence gathering can be formal or informal, group or individual—such as over-the-shoulder observation, questioning, interviews, and self- and peer-evaluation activities. Many typical practices such as homework and quizzes can be used formatively. 

Learning Partnership.pngStudent–Teacher Learning Partnership

One of the fundamental principles of formative assessment is that students share responsibility for their own learning. Teachers and students work together to identify and clarify specific learning targets. Then, over the course of instruction, both teacher and student can gather evidence and reflect on the student’s progress toward the targets.

The student–teacher learning partnership depends on effective feedback in both directions—an ongoing formative assessment feedback loop. (Here are some ideas about cultivating this kind of interactivity in the classroom).

Whether the information generated is reviewed by the teacher, the student, or the student’s peers, it leads to instructional decisions. If a student misunderstands a concept, for example, the teacher could decide to try a different approach. If a student “gets it,” then both the teacher and the student know that it’s time to move on to new material. 

What about grades?

Some types of formative assessment evidence don’t generate scores that count towards grades. Why? Because the evidence is gathered while the instruction is taking place, before students have reached the level of understanding they would reach at the end of a unit. The distinction here is between ongoing activities that help to refine instruction—assessment for learningand “benchmark” tests that take place after a unit of instruction is complete—assessments of learning. See our infographic for more on the definitions of these components. 

It’s all about student learning.

That’s our motto, and that’s the focus of the widespread conversations that ESSA has stimulated about balanced assessment systems and innovation in educational assessment. There’s more attention than ever on establishing a vision of balanced assessment that provides consistency among standards, instruction, and assessment. Many states and districts are doing the hard work to establish these meaningful assessment systems. A clear view of the purpose and value of ongoing formative assessment activities is a critical component in preparing our students for college and career readiness.



Topics: Classroom Assessment, Assessment Literacy, Formative Assessment, Interim Assessments, Connecting Teaching and Learning

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Our Press Room chooses topics of interest from activities around the company, to provide a closer look at ways to improve learning and instruction, and to help demystify assessment issues.