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Formative assessment: getting the focus right
Dylan Wiliam, ETS
Writing in 1967, Michael Scriven suggested two roles that evaluation might play. On the
one hand, “ it may have a role in the on-going improvement of the curriculum” (Scriven,
1967 p.41) while in another role, “ the evaluation process may serve to enable
administrators to decide whether the entire finished curriculum, refined by use of the
evaluation process in its first role, represents a sufficiently significant advance on the
available alternatives to justify the expense of adoption by a school system” (pp. 41-42).
He then proposed “to use the terms 'formative' and 'summative' evaluation to qualify
evaluation in these roles.” (p. 43).
Two years later, Benjamin Bloom suggested that the same distinction might be applied to
the evaluation of student learning—what we today would tend to call “assessment”. He
acknowledged the traditional role that tests played in judging and classifying students,
but noted that there was another role for evaluation:
Quite in contrast is the use of "formative evaluation" to provide feedback and correctives at
each stage in the teaching-learning process. By formative evaluation we mean evaluation by
brief tests used by teachers and students as aids in the learning process. While such tests may
be graded and used as part of the judging and classificatory function of evaluation, we see
much more effective use of formative evaluation if it is separated from the grading process
and used primarily as an aid to teaching (Bloom 1969, p.48)
Explicit in these early uses is that the term “formative” cannot be a property of an
assessment. As Bloom makes clear, the same tests could be used for formative or
summative uses, although he suggests that the formative use will be less effective if the
tests are part of the grading process. The crucial feature of formative evaluations, for both
Scriven and Bloom, is that the information is used in some way to make changes.
Whether it is a curriculum or student achievement that is being evaluated, the evaluation
is formative if the information generated is used to make changes to what would have
happened in the absence of such information. In the same way that one’s formative
experiences are those experiences that shape us as individuals, formative evaluations are
those that shape whatever is being evaluated. An assessment of a curriculum is formative
if it shapes the development of that curriculum. An assessment of a student is formative if
it shapes that student’s learning. Assessments are formative, therefore, if and only if
something is contingent on their outcome, and the information is actually used to alter
what would have happened in the absence of the information.
Of course, the time-scale for this depends on the decisions that need to be made. For
example, a science supervisor in a school district may need to plan in the spring the
workshops that she will offer to teachers during the summer. She may look at the scores
obtained by students in last year’s state tests, and find that the levels of performance on
some domains is lower, relative to the average for the state, than others. She could then
use this information to plan workshops on the areas where performance was weakest,
thus meeting the learning needs of the science teachers in the district in a way that would
not have been possible, or at least would have been unlikely, without that information. In
this example, the information about the performance of the students in the district was
used by the supervisor to adapt her plans for the summer workshops in order to better
meet the teachers’ learning needs. At the other extreme, a language arts teacher might ask
a class of students the following question:
Which of these is a good thesis statement?
A) The typical TV show has 9 violent incidents
B) There is a lot of violence on TV
C) The amount of violence on TV should be reduced
D) Some programs are more violent than others
E) Violence is included in programs to boost ratings
F) Violence on TV is interesting
G) I don’t like the violence on TV
H) The essay I am going to write is about violence on TV
and require each student to respond by holding up one (or more) of a set of cards labeled
A, B, C, D, E, F, G and H. At this point, the teacher has created a “moment of
contingency”—a point in the instructional sequence where the instruction can change
direction in light of evidence about the students’ achievement, thus allowing her to adapt
the instruction to better meet their learning needs. If all students choose option C, the
teacher can move on, reasonably confident that all students in her class understand what
constitutes a good thesis statement. If most of the students have not answered correctly,
then the teacher has created a “teachable moment.” If most of the students have chosen
incorrectly, she might choose to review the work on thesis statements with the class. But
if some have answered correctly while others have not, then she might initiate a class
discussion. Moreover, because she knows which students chose which option, she can
use this information to guide the discussion more effectively.
These two examples illustrate the extreme ends of a continuum. The science supervisor is
engaged in what we might term “long-cycle” formative assessment. The cycles here can
be years long. The results of tests that students took in March 2005 might be used to plan
workshops for teachers in the summer of 2006, but these could not affect student scores
on state tests until the tests taken in March 2007—and these results might not be known
until summer 2007. At the other extreme, the language arts teacher is using a cycle that is
minutes, if not seconds, in duration—what we might call “short-cycle” formative
assessment. The focus of many of the studies in this issue has been somewhere between
these two extremes—what we might call “medium-cycle” formative assessment. In table
1 below, the foci and typical durations of these differences, based on Wiliam and
Thompson (2006) are given.
What makes an assessment formative, therefore, is not the length of the feedback loop,
nor where it takes place, nor who carries it out, nor even who responds. The crucial
feature is that evidence is evoked, interpreted in terms of learning needs, and used to
make adjustments to better meet those learning needs.
Type Focus Length
Long-cycle between instructional units four weeks to one year or more
Medium-cycle between lessons one day to two weeks
Short-cycle within a single lesson five seconds to one hour
Table 1: Types of formative assessment
All the papers in this special issue highlight these aspects to a greater or lesser extent.
The analysis by Ruiz-Primo and Aracelli shows that the teachers who most consistently
elicit the right kinds of information (conceptual eliciting questions), who have ways of
interpreting the students’ responses in terms of learning needs, and who can use this
information to adapt their instruction, generate higher levels of student achievement.
The paper by Niemi et al examines the use of representations in mathematics classrooms
in terms of a five-step model of the teaching and assessment process. Their model is
prescriptive rather than descriptive; while there can be little doubt of the utility of proper
content analysis before beginning instruction, there is little evidence that this is what
teachers actually do, nor is there much evidence that teachers take much account of
students’ prior knowledge. Their analysis focuses on the key role of the process of
representation, although here representations are restricted to external (rather than, say,
cognitive) representations, akin to what Bruner (1996) calls oeuvres (“works”). Here
again the importance of eliciting the right information (what representations should we
get students to think about?), and making sense of their responses, comes through clearly.
In this regard, the “archaeology” of the assessment may be relevant. It is notable that in
many of the papers in this volume, and in most of the research reported in recent years,
teachers have tried to adapt assessments originally designed for summative purposes (e.g.
grading) for formative purposes. In the paper by Gearhart et al., while one teacher did use
white-boards to elicit responses from groups that the teacher could use to adapt
instruction in real time, she, and the other two teachers, focused more on using more or
less formal assessment episodes with rubrics that could support summative inferences. As
a result, the evidence collected by the teachers was more useful for describing where
students were than for informing how to move them forward.
Similar issues are raised in the paper by Aschbacher and Alonzo. Science notebooks have
potential as formative assessments—i.e. they can generate evidence of student
achievement that would allow a teacher to adapt her instruction—but this happens only
when the prompt used for eliciting evidence is structured appropriately. For students in
Mrs Cruz’s class, because the task was too highly structured, all we learn is whether the
students can follow directions. In contrast, in those classes where too little guidance was
given, we get useful information on the understanding of some students, but for other
students, we learn very little. In particular, we do not know whether the lack of evidence
is due to lack of understanding of the science, or lack of understanding about what they
were being asked to do. In contrast, the structure for the notebook entries in Mrs Perez’s
class increases the disclosure of the task (Wiliam, 1992)—the likelihood that “if they
know it, they show it”.
The nature of the domain being studied also has profound implications for the kinds of
assessments that are likely to be useful. In science, we can often itemize the knowledge
we want students to acquire. This makes it relatively straightforward to move from
monitoring (is learning taking place?) to diagnosis (what is not being learned?) to action
(what to do about it?). In a domain such as reading, however, the cause of the problem is
much less clear. Scarborough (2001) shows that skilled reading involves the simultaneous
articulation of a large number of skills, including phonological awareness, decoding,
sight recognition of familiar words, background knowledge of the subject of the text,
vocabulary, knowledge about language structures, inferential skills, and even knowledge
of literacy concepts such as genre. The paper by Bailey and Drummond shows that early-
years teachers can generally identify which students are struggling, but are less skilled at
identifying the causes of the failure to progress. As with the other papers in this issue, the
first challenge is not how to interpret the evidence in terms of student learning needs, but
in generating the right evidence in the first place.
Taken as a whole, the papers in this issue make important contributions to our
understanding of how difficult it is likely to be to improve teachers’ use of formative
assessment strategies. In particular, they suggest that while the provision of high-quality
tools may be a necessary condition, it is certainly not a sufficient condition for the
improvement of formative assessment practice. Tools for formative assessment will only
improve formative assessment practices if teachers can integrate them into their regular
classroom activities. In other words, the task of improving formative assessment is
substantially, if not mainly, about teacher professional development.
Fifteen years ago, this would have resulted in a gloomy prognosis. There was little if any
evidence that the quality of teachers could be improved through teacher professional
development, and certainly not at scale. Indeed, there was a widespread belief that
teacher professional development had simply failed to “deliver the goods”:
Nothing has promised so much and has been so frustratingly wasteful as the thousands of workshops
and conferences that led to no significant change in practice when teachers returned to their classrooms
(Fullan, 1991, p. 315).
In recent years, however, we have learned that to be effective professional development
needs to attend to both process and content elements (Reeves, McCall, and MacGilchrist,
2001; Wilson and Berne, 1999). On the process side, professional development is more
effective when it is related to the local circumstances in which the teachers operate
(Cobb, McClain, Lamberg, and Dean, 2003), takes place over a period of time rather than
being in the form of one-day workshops (Cohen and Hill, 1998), and involves the teacher
in active, collective participation (Garet, Birman, Porter, Desimone, and Herman, 1999).
On the content side professional development is more effective when it has a focus on
deepening teachers’ knowledge of the content they are to teach, the possible responses of
students, and strategies that can be utilized to build on these (Supovitz, 2001).
The creation of teacher learning communities (TLCs) focused on formative assessment
appear to show the greatest potential for improving teaching practice and student
achievement (Wiliam and Thompson, 2006), but a note of caution is in order here.
As noted above, most of the studies reported in this issue have focused on medium cycle
formative assessment, but my own reading of the research (e.g. Black and Wiliam, 1998)
suggests that medium-cycle formative assessments have shown only modest impact on
student learning. Why this is so is not clear. In some cases, it may be because many of the
assessments being used were summative assessments pressed into service for formative
purposes, rather than being designed from the outset to be formative (the too easy
equation of “formative assessment” with “classroom assessment” may be partly
responsible here). It may be that it is just too hard for teachers to use information at the
end of a sequence of learning to adapt instruction, due to the pressure from curriculum
pacing guides or sequencing charts. Certainly the studies that have shown impact on
student learning (e.g. Wiliam, Lee, Harrison & Black, 2004) have tended to be those
where the introduction impacted teachers’ day-to-day and minute-to-minute classroom
practices, either by an explicit focus on short cycle assessment (Leahy, Lyon, Thompson
and Wiliam, 2005) or where a focus on medium or long cycle formative assessment was
implemented in such a way as to require teachers to change their regular classroom
practice. Further work is needed to elaborate the “logic model” of formative assessment
to clarify exactly what we believe the interventions are changing, and how much impact
they have on student learning.
My final concern in all this is that many, if not most, research efforts on supporting
teachers in the use of formative assessment represent a “counsel of perfection.” There is a
focus on meeting the needs of all students that is laudable, but simply unlikely to be
possible in most American classrooms. American teachers are some of the most hard-
working in the world, with around 1130 contact-hours per year compared to the OECD
average of 803 hours for primary and 674 hours for upper secondary (OECD, 2003). If
we are to effect substantial change at scale, we need to focus on the changes that we can
produce most easily. Of course, we must not tolerate interventions that exacerbate
existing inequality, but the pressing need now is to move teachers to action. As Robert
Slavin (1987) remarked in another context, “Do we really know nothing until we know
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