Is formative assessment overvalued?

Call me late to the party, but last night I was surprised to see this tweet from Alfie Kohn stating that formative assessment is overvalued. I agree with his latter comment that data to see if students are improving, or have improved, are worthless until we’ve asked ‘improved at what?’, but I don’t understand the connection between the two parts of the tweet. My hunch is that my understanding of formative assessment in practice is different to Kohn’s. In this post I’ll explain my own take on formative assessment.

(Disclaimer – I understand that a tweet is limited in its 140 character form. I’m using my understanding of the tweet as a jumping off point for this post.)

From the seminal 1998 paper of Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam, ‘Inside the black box’, to subsequent work by these authors, and others, formative assessment as an evidence-based, rigorous feedback process is well-established.

Feedback can be defined as information provided by an agent regarding aspects of performance or understanding (Hattie & Timperley, 2007). Wiliam (2016) notes that anyone (teacher, learner, peer, parent) can be an agent of feedback, and that the most powerful agent of feedback is likely to be the student who takes responsibility for their own learning.

The purpose of feedback, according to Hattie and Timperley (2007) is to reduce the discrepancy between current and desired understanding. Information is used by students or teachers for improvement in an interactive dialogue between teacher and learners so that learners can become more expert and more responsible in guiding and furthering their own learning (Black & Wiliam, 2010). The interactivity, and the activity, are important. Teachers use feedback to make adjustments to planning and instruction. Students become active, empowered agents of their own learning as they self-assess, receive feedback, and act on it. Formative assessment is based in a belief that every learner can improve.

Feedback can have a significant positive influence on student learning and achievement (Stiggins & DuFour, 2009; Wiliam, 2011a, 2011b, 2016), but it is linked to emotions, relationships and environment; it can be accepted, modified, or rejected; and it can have positive or negative effects on performance (see Kluger & DeNisi, 1996).

Formative assessment involves feedback that is continuous; specific to goal, standards and task; descriptive rather than numerical or via grades; occuring within a learning context; and acted on by the learner (such as through self-assessment, re-doing the task, or outlining next steps).

It is information and interpretations from assessments, not numbers or grades, that matter (Hattie & Timperley, 2007). Numerical marks and grades operate as judgements, not aids to learning, and so students ignore comments where a mark is provided (Black, 2014; Black et al., 2004). Alfie Kohn argues against grades in this 2011 paper. Ruth Butler (1987, 1988) found that grades had no effect on achievement. Written comments based on the task, on the other hand, resulted in high levels of task involvement. Comments should identify what has been done well and what still needs improvement, and give guidance on how to make that improvement (Black et al., 2004; Wiliam, 2011b).

Feedback should not involve judgement of the person, positively or negatively. Butler’s research (1987, 1988) found that written praise had no effect on achievement, and Costa and Garmston (2003) note that learning cannot occur if a person feels threatened. While receiving feedback can be emotional, it should be designed to evoke cognition over emotion.

At a grass-roots level, teachers such as Starr Sackstein (2015, 2017) and Mark Barnes (2013, 2015) have been advocating for teachers to ‘throw out grades’, focusing instead on feedback practices such as conferencing, peer assessment, and self-assessment.

This previous blog post outlines some of my own practices around summative assessments, as well as a term I spent teaching Year 10 English without any marks or grades. I have recently developed my summative assessment feedback practices to ensure that students engage with their work more deeply before it is assessed, and then again once I have written comments, but before receiving their mark. In my classroom, formative assessment practices are a constant. They include myself and my students constantly engaging with their work, curriculum standards, syllabus points, rubrics, clear criteria for success, and setting of specific targets. These practices are entwined within a relational classroom environment of trust and challenge. Anecdotally, some of the best a-ha moments for my students come when they assess their own work against clear criteria, and come to their own realisations about how to improve. Over time, self-assessment becomes part of expected and lived practice for students in my classroom. This is not to say that I am a formative assessment expert; building formative opportunities takes ongoing teacher reflection, deliberate planning, and careful constant reading of the students.

Perhaps I have been embedding formative feedback practices into my teaching for so long that it seems obvious, but my thought on first seeing Kohn’s tweet was: of course we cannot look at data that might indicate improvement of learning without asking ‘improvement at what?’ Specific goals, standards, and comments on how and on what to improve, are part and parcel of the suite of practices of formative assessment.

Is formative assessment overvalued? I don’t think so. It is a fundamental way to improve learning, and also to build the capacity of the learner themselves.


Barnes, M. (2013) Role reversal: Achieving uncommonly excellent results in the student-centred classroom. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Barnes, M. (2015). Assessment 3.0: Throw Out Your Grade Book and Inspire Learning. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Black, P. J. (2014). Assessment and the aims of the curriculum: An explorer’s journey. Prospects, 44, 487-501.

Black, P., Harrison, C., Lee, C., Marshall, B., & Wiliam, D. (2004). Working inside the black box: Assessment for learning in the classroom. Phi Delta Kappan, 86(1), 8-21.

Black, P. J., & Wiliam, D. (1998). Inside the Black Box: Raising standards through classroom assessment. Phi Delta Kappan, 80, 139-48.

Black, P. J., & Wiliam, D. (2010). A pleasant surprise. Phi Delta Kappan, 92(1), 47.

Butler, R. (1987). Task-involving and ego-involving properties of evaluation: Effects of different feedback conditions on motivational perceptions, interest, and performance. Journal of educational psychology79(4), 474-482.

Butler, R. (1988). Enhancing and undermining intrinsic motivation: The effects of task‐involving and ego‐involving evaluation on interest and performance. British journal of educational psychology, 58(1), 1-14.

Costa, A. L., & Garmston, R. J. (2003). Cognitive coaching in retrospect: Why it persists.

Hattie, J., & Timperley, H. (2007). The power of feedback. Review of Educational Research 77(1), 81-112.

Kluger, A. N., & DeNisi, A. (1996). The effects of feedback interventions on performance: A historical review, a meta-analysis, and a preliminary feedback intervention theory.

Kohn, A. (2011). The case against grades. Educational Leadership, 69(3), 28-33.

Sackstein, S. (2015). Hacking assessment: 10 ways to go gradeless in a traditional grade school. Cleveland, OH: Hack Learning.

Sackstein, S. (2017). Peer Feedback in the classroom: Empowering students to be experts. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Stiggins, R., & DuFour, R. (2009). Maximizing the power of formative assessments. Phi Delta Kappan, 90(9), 640-644.

Wiliam, D. (2011a). Embedded Formative Assessment. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.

Wiliam, D. (2011b) What is assessment for learning? Studies in Educational Evaluation37(1), 3-14.

Wiliam, D. (2016). Leadership for teacher learning: Creating a culture where all teachers improve so that all students succeed. Moorabbin, Australia: Hawker Brownlow Education.


2 thoughts on “Is formative assessment overvalued?

  1. Hi Deborah,

    I have been following your blog for some time now and regularly find lines of thought in your entries that parallel my own. This entry is no exception.

    I too am an educator (I teach French and Latin full-time in a secondary school) and have recently completed an EdD. I researched the impact of reflecting in English on the learning gains as students write in a second language for portfolio assessment. It was informed by scholarship from the fields of Assessment for Learning, Second Language Writing and Self-regulation and it sprang from years of doing similarly to yourself, asking students to reflect around feedback on their learning and offering them choices as to what they might do next based on that feedback to move their learning forward.

    I am interested in knowing, based on what you have written above, where and how you invite your students to reflect. Do they share those reflections with you? And does further conversation result? And, what scaffolding do you give your students as they think about what to do next?

    I have found that only the higher achievers amongst my Year 11 students (fifteen to sixteen year olds) know what to do next as a result of my feedback. The others need the guidance of a small range of specific learning options in order to move their learning forward. So to use terms used by Schunk and Usher (2013)*, that can self-observe and self-judge, but they don’t always know how to self-react. Therefore the conversation that ensues after the initial feedback seems to me to be more important for the not-so-high-flyers than I ever realised. I’d be interested in your comments regarding this.

    I would also be interested on your comments on another unrelated but more personal matter: I read in an earlier entry that you taught, conducted your research while teaching, and then returned full-time to a secondary school and to a classroom. As have I. For me, this is early days after completion of the doctorate, I may be closer to the retirement end of my career than you might be, and I have returned to the same job in the same school. I would love to know how you maintained the momentum and satisfaction of your doctorate-level research when you returned full-time to the ‘busyness’ a secondary school? How did you find the time to write, to think, to remain fulfilled when most of those around you, especially those who are in a position to facilitate the sharing of your work, are unaware or disinterested, see it as irrelevant to other learning areas than your own? I would appreciate knowing in practical terms how you found / maintained your creative and fulfilled space after completing the doctorate. Have I missed a blog entry on this topic?


    *Schunk, D., & Usher, E. (2013). Barry J. Zimmerman’s theory of self-regulated learning. In H. Bembernutty, T. Cleary, & A. Kitsantas. (Eds.), Applications of self-regulated learning across diverse disciplines: A tribute to Barry J. Zimmerman (pp. 1-28). Charlotte NC: Information Age Publishing, Inc.


    • Hi Anne

      On your first point I agree that conferencing and follow-up conversations to self-reflection on feedback and next steps are important. For instance, my students don’t receive a mark on a summative assessment until they have engaged with my feedback, acted on it somehow, self-reflected, set targets AND brought this to me for a conversation. Sometimes I help them reflect further or more specifically or differently, and send them back until they have thought or worked further.

      On your second comment, I am still finding my way but I have begun a new role in my school which is in part about research; I have lots of autonomy and am involved in cool, strategic, whole-school work. I spend holidays and downtime with my academic writing. I wrote a little about that here – – but maybe I could blog in answer to your specific question.

      Liked by 1 person

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