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Formative Assessment: Bridging the Research - Practice Divide

Despite clear evidence that formative assessment creates vantage points throughout the teaching-learning cycle for both teachers and students, research suggests that teachers are not taking advantage of the full cadre of formative assessment strategies available to them – particularly those that have been associated with improved student learning and achievement such as questioning techniques, feedback without grades, self-assessment, peer-assessment, and the formative use of summative assessment. When educators participate in sharing stories, take part in internal accountability practices, and build networked learning communities, the philosophy of assessment and school culture begins to move forward. Generating coherence and synergy between Ministries of Education, Education Faculties, school boards, and school policy is essential in order to successfully construct a medium where research results can influence practice.

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“Teach, mark, move on: that’s the old paradigm. Today’s classrooms have changed. It is important to show the students where they are, how to improve, and where to go from here… It’s no longer about “this is your mark and that’s the end of the story”.

~ Secondary Teacher

Most educational jurisdictions acknowledge a dichotomy between assessment practices that are ongoing and take place during a lesson or unit of study and those that primarily serve an evaluative function at the end of a unit or term. The former is referred to as formative assessment (also known as assessment for learning) and the latter is referred to as summative assessment (also known as assessment of learning). Although both types of assessment provide important data for instructional planning, only formative assessment informs teachers about student learning at a point when timely adjustments to instruction can be made. Another advantage of formative assessment is that it invites students to be active participants in their own learning so that student engagement and motivation are increased. For example, students may be asked to assess their own learning or to act as a resource to other students by engaging in a peer-assessment exercise. These advantages, along with other unique features, make formative assessment an essential characteristic of the teaching-learning cycle. Research suggests distinct advantages accrue to students when their teachers utilize a variety of formative assessment methods.

Although research has clearly shown that formative assessment can enhance student success, there is firm evidence of a research-practice divide. Too many teachers are failing to utilize the full cadre of formative assessment practices available to them. To build capacity in assessment skills, educators need new models that focus on assessment for learning rather than evaluation of learning; one way to understand how to build this capacity is to listen to practitioners’ stories of best practices.[1] With a deeper understanding of how practitioners are making meaning of assessment practices, policymakers may be better able to enhance attempts to increase the use of formative assessment.

Although research has clearly shown that formative assessment can enhance student success, there is firm evidence of a research-practice divide.

Research versus Practice

Four large reviews on the impact of formative assessment provide strong support for the utilization of strategies such as questioning techniques, feedback without grades, peer-assessment, self-assessment, and formative use of summative assessments.[2] Research suggests that the consistent use of these formative strategies can double the speed of student learning.[3] Even more importantly, formative assessment reduces the achievement gap by helping low achievers the most.[4] Thus, educators are faced with the challenge of balancing the demands of grading, which puts an emphasis on summative assessment, with the research literature that strongly favours the utilization of formative assessment. One may naturally query if teacher practice has changed in response to the weight of evidence favouring increased use of formative assessment.

Our own three-year longitudinal research in elementary and secondary schools within Ontario posed that question, and its results suggest that teachers continue to overemphasize summative assessment methods (i.e., tests, quizzes, projects), with only a minority of teachers using formative assessment techniques on a consistent basis.[5] Teachers cited a number of factors as constraints to practice, including a lack of instructional leadership, poor initial teacher training, and resistance from parents and students to more innovative formative assessment strategies. These results are not surprising and are largely congruent with research outside of Canada.[6] In spite of the findings, however, we found hopeful evidence to suggest that the research-policy-practice gap can be bridged.

Bridging the Divide

Although it was apparent that too few educators in the school boards we studied were actually employing the new assessment practices, most of the teachers and administrators in our longitudinal study had a strong working knowledge of, and a philosophy consistent with, the best practices recommended in assessment research/policy. These teachers and administrators shared insightful stories of formative assessment practices from which other jurisdictions may benefit. By sharing stories of best assessment practices with colleagues, administrators and teachers built network communities that created a positive assessment environment and led to professional accountability.

Based on the emergent evidence from our study of K-12 administrators and teachers, we consider focusing on the following aspects of assessment.

Professional Accountability

Across Canada, accountability is measured by performance assessment – primarily in the form of large-scale student testing. But according to Lorna Earl, the real essence of accountability lies with the educators and their sense of professional accountability. Educators, she says, need to be assessment literate as part of this professional accountability.[7] For teachers in our study, accountability was not measured by external assessments such as testing. Indeed, their sense of accountability at its core was a personal one – accountability to students and insuring growth and reaching full potential. All educators highly valued student growth as the most important aspect of assessment. This meant that classroom assessment often needed to be differentiated and formative.

Building a Positive Assessment Culture

Perhaps the most distressing finding in our study was the perception among teachers that all that mattered to students were the grades. One teacher said, “We’ve conditioned them to think only about their grades; learning doesn’t seem to matter to them as long as their grades are good.” But students weren’t the only ones who shared this view. Many educators commented that parents play a large role in perpetuating this attitude. As one secondary teacher said, “Kids only care about marks. They have an obsession about numbers. I think it comes from the parents and the culture.”

Although their classroom practices did not always reflect it, teachers in this study ascribed to the benefits of using formative assessment to enhance student learning and build a positive assessment culture. Consider the following responses: “We are not doing this because someone told us to; we are doing this because it’s good for the kids and we need to make schooling valuable;” and “We owe it to each child to figure out where they are and move them along.” All the administrators in our study held the belief that “all students can succeed” and that it is consequently the administrators’ responsibility to create an environment that ensures such success.

As a result of increased understanding of the role of culture in student attitudes toward assessment and learning, teachers began to shift the emphasis in their classrooms away from grades and toward rich learning experiences over the course of this three-year study.

Networked Communities

Both teachers and administrators found that professional learning communities (PLCs) were the best form of professional development for improved assessment. PLCs were created across grades, divisions, or schools, or within schools, depending upon size and purpose. The most helpful practice was moderated marking, in which teachers got together to discuss samples of work to determine its quality. As one teacher said, there is a need for “a common language because we are all collecting the same data.” According to another, “It is important that we are all measuring things the same way. This is how we ensure accountability.” Many were concerned that “a Level 2 is a Level 2 in every classroom and at different grade levels so that kids don’t get mixed messages.” Moderated marking was seen as a strong catalyst for professional dialogue.

A powerful way to build capacity is to listen to people’s stories of best experiences in the field.

However, there were some problems with PLCs. Some felt that not all participants were onside – especially when PLCs became mandatory. Sometimes, PLCs were too small to be worthwhile; for example, if there is only one law teacher for the entire school, collaboration became impossible. In other schools, PLCs became stagnant over time. In some situations, interschool, network-learning communities offered a good solution; interschool professional learning communities can be especially valuable when they include personnel from each level within the system (e.g. teacher, administrator, superintendent) and when each member has a different role to play within the process.

Sharing Stories

A powerful way to build capacity is to listen to people’s stories of best experiences in the field.[8] A key question in our study asked participants to share a story of assessment and evaluation that was meaningful to them. The stories that they told were heartwarming. Importantly, the stories were also about the kind of assessment practices that the research is recommending educators to implement. In some cases the stories focused on how a certain assessment practice – usually ongoing, formative assessment – helped an individual student who was having trouble. Other stories focused on how using evidence (usually evidence posted on a data wall – often from large-scale testing) to inform daily practice helped students to succeed. These stories indicated that educators were compassionate and caring, as well as concerned about how well students performed on their assessments. (See sidebar.)

Sharing these types of stories would offer valuable examples that others could explore. Since stories are aligned with educators’ basic values, it is likely that they will appeal to other educators with the same values and thus may make changes in assessment attitudes and practices easier to implement.

Supporting Factors

The assessment for and of learning is an international movement. Across Canada this philosophy is embedded in the Western and Northern Protocol for Collaboration in Education, which attempts to guide best practices of assessment in Canadian classrooms. And in Ontario, the most recent K-12 School Effectiveness Framework (2009) highlights the use of the three purposes of assessment, (of, for, as) as one of its main tenants in order to successfully “reach every student.”

However – in spite of such “official” recognition – the philosophy needs to be better aligned with provincial ministries, schools, and teacher education faculties. We were surprised at the number of educators in our study who stated that their primary source of professional development was from a Faculty of Education – either from a teacher education program or at the graduate level. In fact, few of these faculties teach courses on assessment and evaluation; rather, assessment is embedded into teachable subject areas. The trouble with this design is that not all faculty members have expertise in assessment and evaluation, and therefore the assessment content is not properly infused and is often neglected in teachable subject courses.

For proper instruction to occur in K-12 schools, assessment must be embedded into the curriculum. If academics took the time to properly learn about assessment, integrated in all subject areas, then emerging educators could see what good assessment looks like in different subject areas.

It is also surprising that initial training for school administrators (i.e., Principals’ Qualification courses) continues to be deficient in assessment preparation. Such programs tend to have a strong focus on policy, school law, and injustices. Yet, as Picciano has argued, instructional leadership in assessment is the key to successful data decision-making.[9] As one administrator from our study said, “… Extracting next steps from assessment data is the cornerstone to effective leadership, instruction and student growth.”


Our research suggests that formative assessment creates vantage points throughout the teaching-learning cycle for both teachers and students, and therefore stronger supports are required to bridge research and practice. By way of this study, a number of practitioners where able to share their stories of best assessment practices which demonstrate the successful transmission of formative assessment research to classroom practice. When educators participate in sharing stories, take part in internal accountability practices, and build networked learning communities, the philosophy of assessment and school culture begins to move forward. Furthermore, generating coherence and synergy between ministries of education, education faculties, school boards, and school policy is essential in order to successfully construct a medium where research to practice can traverse freely.

This research is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC).

EN BREF - Bien qu’il soit clairement prouvé qu’une évaluation formative offre des repères tout au long du cycle d’enseignement et d’apprentissage, pour les enseignants comme pour les élèves, la recherche indique que les enseignants ne profitent pas pleinement de toutes les stratégies possibles d’évaluation formative – particulièrement celles qui ont été associées à de meilleurs apprentissages et réalisations des élèves : méthodes interrogatives, rétroaction sans notes, autoévaluation, évaluation par les pairs et emploi formatif de l’évaluation sommative. Quand des éducateurs mettent en commun des anecdotes, participent à des comptes rendus internes et bâtissent des communautés d’apprentissage en réseau, la philosophie d’évaluation et la culture d’école commencent à progresser. Il est essentiel de générer de la cohérence et de la synergie entre les ministères de l’éducation, les facultés d’éducation, les conseils et commissions scolaires et les politiques d’école pour construire un milieu où les résultats de recherche peuvent influer sur les pratiques.

[1] L. Stoll, “Capacity Building for School Improvement or Creating Capacity of learning? A Changing Landscape,” Journal of Educational Change 10 (2009): 115-127.

[2] (see P. Black and D. Wiliam, “Inside the Black Box: Raising Standards Through Classroom Assessment,” Phi Delta Kappan 80, no. 2 (1998): 139-48; T. J. Crooks, “The Impact of Classroom Evaluation Practices on Students,” Review of Educational Research 58 (1988): 438-481; A. N. Kluger and A. DeNisi, “The Effects of Feedback Intervention on Performance: A Historical Review, a Meta-analysis, and a Preliminary Feedback Intervention Theory,” Psychological Bulletin 119, no. 2 (1996): 254-284; G. Natriello, “The Impact of Evaluation Processes on Students,” Educational Psychologist 22, no. 2 (1987): 155-175.

[3] D. Wiliam, “Content then Process: Teacher Learning Communities in the Service of Formative Assessment,” in Ahead of the Curve: The Power of Assessment to Transform Teaching and Learning, ed. D. B. Reeves (Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree, 2007), 183-204.

[4] P. Black, C. Harrison, C. Lee, B. Marshall and D. Wiliam, “Working Inside the Black Box: Assessment for Learning in the Classroom,” Phi Delta Kappan 86, no. 1 (2004): 9-21.

[5] L. Volante, “Assessment of, for, and as Learning Within Schools: Implications for Transforming Classroom Practice,” Action in Teacher Education 31, no. 4 (in press).

[6] See Black, Harrison, Lee, Marshall, & Wiliam, 2004; N. S. Wilson, “Teachers Expanding Pedagogical Content Knowledge: Learning about Formative Assessment Together,” Journal of In-Service Education 34, no. 3 (2008): 283-298.

[7] L. Earl, “What Does Accountability Mean for Teachers?” Orbit 32, no. 1 (2001): 27-31.

[8] Stoll.

[9] A. Picciano, Data-decision Making for Effective School Leadership (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, 2006).