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.

References

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.

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