If, like me, you thought the answer to the above question was almost certainly nothing, take a look at this:

Slide from Dylan Wiliam's presentation at AERA conference, New Orleans, LA, April 2011

Pretty neat, huh? I think this really makes the point that a lot of what we do in schools and call AfL isn’t.

Here are a few handy reminders about what exactly formative assessment is:

We use the general term assessment to refer to all those activities undertaken by teachers—and by their students in assessing themselves—that provide information to be used as feedback to modify teaching and learning activities. Such assessment becomes formative assessment when the evidence is actually used to adapt the teaching to meet student needs” (Black & Wiliam, 1998 p. 140)

“the process used by teachers and students to recognise and respond to student learning in order to enhance that learning, during the learning” (Cowie & Bell, 1999 p. 32)

“assessment carried out during the instructional process for the purpose of improving teaching or learning” (Shepard et al., 2005 p. 275)

“Formative assessment refers to frequent, interactive assessments of students’ progress and understanding to identify learning needs and adjust teaching appropriately” (Looney, 2005, p. 21)

“A formative assessment is a tool that teachers use to measure student grasp of specific topics and skills they are teaching. It’s a ‘midstream’ tool to identify specific student misconceptions and mistakes while the material is being taught” (Kahl, 2005 p. 11)

“Assessment for Learning is the process of seeking and interpreting evidence for use by learners and their teachers to decide where the learners are in their learning, where they need to go and how best to get there” (Broadfoot et al.,  2002 pp. 2-3)

Assessment for learning is any assessment for which the first priority in its design and practice is to serve the purpose of promoting students’ learning. It thus differs from assessment designed primarily to serve the purposes of accountability, or of ranking, or of certifying competence. An assessment activity can help learning if it provides information that teachers and their students can use as feedback in assessing themselves and one another and in modifying the teaching and learning activities in which they are engaged. Such assessment becomes “formative assessment” when the evidence is actually used to adapt the teaching work to meet learning needs. (Black et al., 2004 p. 10)

“An assessment functions formatively to the extent that evidence about student achievement elicited by the assessment is interpreted and used to make decisions about the next steps in instruction that are likely to be better, or better founded, than the decisions that would have been taken in the absence of that evidence.”   (Wiliam, 2009)

It’s so important to remember that formative assessment is not marking; it’s what the marking is for. It’s not students showing understanding by displaying red, amber or green cards; it’s what happens afterwards. And it’s not cramming lessons full of peer and self assessment; it’s what the teachers and students do with the information after the peer & self assessment happens. AfL must consist of the following processes:

  • Establishing where the learners are in their learning
  • Establishing where they are going
  • Working out how to get there

Dylan Wiliam offers this simple diagnostic quiz to see if we know what we’re on about (handy for staff training methinks):

Which of the following are formative assessment?

A. A science adviser uses test results to plan professional development workshops for teachers
B. Teachers doing item-by-item analysis of 4th grade math tests to review their curriculum
C. A school tests students every 10 weeks to predict which students are on course to pass a big test
D. Exit pass question: “What is the difference between mass and weight?”
E. “Sketch the graph of y equals one over one plus x squared on your mini-dry-erase boards.”
He doesn’t provide the answers but I’ll kindly pop what I think at the bottom of the post, just in case…
He finishes by suggesting that in order to promote students’ growth and well being we need to:
  • Share learning goals with students so that they are able to monitor their own progress toward them.
  • Promote the belief that ability is incremental rather than fixed; when students think they can’t get smarter, they are likely to devote their energy to avoiding failure.
  • Make it more difficult for students to compare themselves with others in terms of achievement.
  • Provide feedback that contains a recipe for future action rather than a review of past failures.
  • Use every opportunity to transfer executive control of the learning from the teacher to the students to support their development as autonomous learners.
And offers these ‘key strategies’ for so doing:
  1. Clarifying, understanding, and sharing learning intentions (curriculum philosophy)
  2. Engineering effective classroom discussions, tasks and activities that elicit evidence of learning (classroom discourse, interactive whole-class teaching)
  3. Providing feedback that moves learners forward
  4. Activating students as learning resources for one another (collaborative learning, reciprocal teaching, peer-assessment)
  5. Activating students as owners of their own learning (metacognition, motivation, interest, attribution, self-assessment)
If you’re interested in looking through other of Mr Wiliam’s excellent presentations, have a rummage though his site.
Spolier below:
A – a perfect example of assessment being used formatively
B – yep – this is fine to – there is a clear purpose to the assessment which is designed to further students’ learning
C – No. This just provides data. What will the school do with this data? Maybe they’ll use it formatively, maybe not. Depressingly, it’ll probably end up on Battle ground board in the staffroom, or something similar.
D – Absolutely not – this is purely summative
E – Well, on it’s own, probably not. What will the teacher do with this information? If she takes note of the graphs on the mini whiteboards and adjusts future teaching accordingly, brilliant. If not it was just a gimmicky plenary activity.