Sunday, November 14, 2010

Formative assessment's basis in research

As "formative assessment" becomes an increasingly central concept in Kentucky education, we should be asking where to find the research on the strategy.  Here are some of the main sources that could help anyone looking for either basic evidence that the approach is effective or for a nuanced understanding of which approach delivers those important results.

Margaret Heritage's new report for the Council of Chief State School Officers provides a potent summary of the research on formative assessment, beginning with a research synthesis by Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam:
From their review, Black and Wiliam (1998b) proposed that effective formative assessment involves
• teachers making adjustments to teaching and learning in response to assessment evidence;
• students receiving feedback about their learning with advice on what they can do to improve; and
• students' participation in the process through self-assessment.
They concluded that the student learning gains triggered by formative assessment were amongst the largest ever reported for educational interventions with the largest gains being realized by low achievers (1998b). This was, and remains, a powerful argument for formative assessment.
Later in the paper, Heritage summarizes research before and after that Black and Wiliam piece on the central role of usable feedback in accelerating student learning, giving further support to her argument that the classroom process is what allows formative assessment to make a difference in student achievement, including John Hattie and Helen Timperley's 2007 review of the research literature on the crucial role of feedback in students' learning process.

Rick Stiggins' Balanced Assessment Manifesto draws from the same body of research:
When assessment for learning practices like these play out as a matter of routine in classrooms, as mentioned previously, evidence gathered from dozens of studies conducted around the world consistently reveals a half to a full standard deviation gain in student achievement attributable to the careful management of the classroom assessment process, with the largest gains accruing for struggling learners. (Black and Wiliam, 1998; Hattie and Timperley, 2007).
For those who want the short version, there are two main takeaway points. First, there is indeed serious research behind the formative approach.  Second, that approach is rightly understood as supporting formative assessment understood as "a process used by teachers and students during instruction that provides feedback to adjust ongoing teaching and learning."  (Thanks to Gene Wilhoit's "Foreword" to the Heritage paper for that especially succinct definition.)

For those who want to go a step deeper, into the original articles, the relevant citations are:
  • Black, P. J., & Wiliam, D. (1998). Assessment and classroom learning. Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy and Practice, 5, 7-73
  • Black, P. J., & Wiliam, D. (1998). Inside the Black Box: Raising standards through classroom assessment. Phi Delta Kappan, 80, 139-48.
  • Hattie, J., & Timperley, H. (2007). The power of feedback. Review of Educational Research, 77, 81-112.

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