Defining Formative Assessment
A decision was made early in the New York Formative Assessment project to adopt a definition of formative assessment that was consistent with the practices found to support improved student learning. The first nationwide attempt to formulate such a definition in the United States was provided by the Formative Assessment for Students and Teachers (FAST) State Collaborative on Assessment and Student Standards (SCASS) formed by the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO):
“…a process used by teachers and students during instruction that provides feedback to adjust ongoing teaching and learning to improve students’ achievement of intended instructional outcomes.”
This CCSSO definition and the key attributes provided important foundational knowledge for all project partners and participants. The primary purpose of the formative assessment process, as conceived in this definition, is to provide evidence that is used by teachers and students to inform instruction during the teaching and learning process. Through classroom formative assessment students use feedback to enable them to understand what they need to learn, how well they are learning those things, and what they can do next to move forward in their learning. Effective formative assessment involves collecting evidence about how student learning is progressing during the course of instruction so that necessary instructional adjustments can be made to close the gap between students’ current understanding and the desired goals. Formative assessment is thus fully integrated into the teaching and learning process.
At the district and school levels, one feature of this definition was critical to understand during early stages of project implementation was the unequivocal requirement that the formative assessment process involve both teachers and students. The students must be actively involved in the formative assessment process and they need to be supported by teachers (and other students) to learn strategies to take ownership for and improve their own learning. The process requires the teacher to share learning goals and success criteria with students and provide opportunities for students to monitor their ongoing progress. Using learning goals and success criteria with students was a significant focus of professional learning with Syracuse City School District mathematics coaches.
At state-level project meetings, the CCSSO definition of formative assessment raised the idea that formative assessment be regarded as a process rather than a particular kind of assessment. In other words, there is no such thing as “a formative test.” Instead, there are a wide-variety of strategies teachers and students can use to collect evidence of learning and make adjustments to classroom instruction. These range from informal observations and conversations to purposefully planned instructionally embedded techniques designed to elicit evidence of student learning to inform and adjust instruction. Developing shared agreement on this definition of formative assessment involved a significant change in understanding and required frequent review and communication amongst all partners through the first year of the project.