Formative Assessment: Policy, Perspectives and Practice

By Clark, Ian | Florida Journal of Educational Administration and Policy, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

Formative Assessment: Policy, Perspectives and Practice


Clark, Ian, Florida Journal of Educational Administration and Policy


A Global Evolution

Despite being hailed as a 'quiet revolution' (Hutchinson & Hayward, 2005) it is perhaps more accurate to see the growth of the global awareness regarding formative assessment (FA) as evolutionary in nature. Before the term 'formative' existed, the earliest allusion to formative approaches may be traced back to 1963 and Cronbach's seminal article on the improvement of course content. Four years later, Scriven (1967) originated the term 'formative' applying it in a manner consistent with Cronbach's approach to the evaluation of whole programs. A crucial development in the traditions of FA is the progressive replacement of Scriven's original term of 'formative evaluation' of educational programs by the term 'assessment' when the object is student learning in the classroom (Allal & Lopez, 2005). Since that time, educational researchers have emphasized balanced classroom assessment practices that support academic achievement and the cultural development of the 'whole child' (Bloom, Hastings, & Madaus, 1971; Sadler, 1989; Black & Wiliam, 1998a, 1998b, 2006a; Assessment Reform Group [ARG], 1999; Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development [OECD], 2005; National Association of State Boards of Education [NASBE], 2009). The consequence has been the implementation of long-term policy initiatives on an international scale. One example of the remarkable expansion in awareness regarding the benefits of FA is a 2005 Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) study that features exemplary cases from secondary schools in Canada, Denmark, England, Finland, Italy, New Zealand, Queensland in Australia, and Scotland. Despite the growing global adoption of FA practice there is a relatively weak policy agenda for such transformation in the US.

Formative Assessment in the US

Black & Wiliam (2005) observe that the effective integration of formative and summative assessment will require a different change-management strategy depending on national circumstances and in some cases may be very challenging indeed. The Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) present the "core" challenge to the effective implementation of FA in the US:

   ... despite the pioneering efforts of CCSSO and other organizations
   in the U.S., we already risk losing the promise that formative
   assessment holds for teaching and learning. The core problem lies
   in the false, but nonetheless widespread, assumption that formative
   assessment is a particular kind of measurement instrument, rather
   than a process that is fundamental and indigenous to the practice
   of teaching and learning. (Heritage, 2010, p. 1)

Current policies founded upon 'scientism' prompted The National Association of State Boards of Education (NASBE, 2009), which undertook a study on assessment systems for the 21st century learner to remark that, "a growing majority of testing experts and analysts now believe that education cannot be transformed under the constraints of the current state assessment and accountability systems" (p. 3). Consequently, circumstances do not favor the inception of FA in the US. As L. A. Shepard noted at the 2005 Educational Testing Service (ETS) invitational conference:

   The arrival of formative assessment in America was ill timed. This
   potentially powerful classroom-based learning and teaching
   innovation was overshadowed almost immediately by the No Child Left
   Behind Act (NCLB) (January 2002) with its intense pressure to raise
   scores on external accountability tests. (p. 2)

The advent of NCLB (which reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act [ESEA, 1965]) is particularly important in setting the current political tone for the continuing discussion on the applicability of FA in American classrooms. At present, the political terrain in the US creates an inhospitable environment for the transformation of education. …

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