‘Formative assessment’ is one of those educational terms that is almost as widely interpreted as it is used, yet is something that ‘everyone knows’ improves learning (Hargreaves, 2005; Lau, 2015; Shepard, 2005). Originating in 1960’s curriculum studies as formative ‘evaluation’ (Striven, 1967), it was first defined, in contrast to the more common summative evaluation tests, by Bloom and colleagues (1971). Whereas summative evaluations (which may be characterised as ‘assessment of learning’) are usually designed for the purpose of grading students or for evaluating a curriculum, formative evaluations (‘assessment for learning’) were described as “another type of evaluation which all who are involved—student, teacher, curriculum maker—would welcome because they find it so useful in helping them improve what they wish to do” (Bloom et al., 1971, p. 117).
Subsequently and inevitably, across the thousands of published academic papers and many books (cf. Andrade and Cizek, 2009) that include ‘formative assessment’ in their title, formative assessment has been defined in multiple ways (Dorn, 2010).
However, the definition given by Black and Wiliam in their seminal literature review (1998a), summarized in the well-known booklet ‘Inside the Black Box’ written especially for teachers and policy makers (Black and Wiliam, 1998b), is one of the most widely cited. Formative assessment, they write, encompasses “all those activities undertaken by teachers, and/or by their students, which provide information to be used as feedback to modify the teaching and learning activities in which they are engaged” (1998a, pp. 7–8). Put another way, “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).
For their analysis, Black and Wiliam examined two previous reviews (Crooks, 1988; Natriello, 1987) and 250 academic papers on subjects as diverse as classroom practices, assessment practices, student motivation, learning theory, questioning, and feedback – a scope necessary because before that time very few studies used the term formative assessment. Their core conclusion (1998a, 1998b) was that improving formative assessment in the classroom leads to greater improvements in learning than do other typical educational interventions, with effect sizes (“effect size is the most important tool in reporting and interpreting effectiveness” Higgins et al., 2013, p. 6) ranging from 0.40 to 0.70: an effect size of 0.40 “should be used as the benchmark to judge effects in education.... [effect sizes above 0.40] are worth having” (Hattie, 2008, p. 16). However, while these effect sizes are widely cited as justification for implementing formative assessment practices (cf. Boston, 2002), Black and Wiliam’s own later studies (Wiliam et al., 2004) showed a smaller effect size, 0.32, while a recent meta-analysis (Kingston and Nash, 2011, 2012; contested by Briggs et al., 2012) found only a weighted mean effect size of 0.20. The magnitude of these effect sizes is, however, not as important as the relative scarcity of studies that might be included in any meta-analysis (Kingston and Nash, 2011) because, it has been argued, most published studies “lack the statistical reliability expected of assessment practices” (Clark, 2011, p. 165), which makes it difficult to draw robust conclusions about the general efficacy of formative assessment.
In short, while there are reams of qualitative, correlational or small-scale studies that support using formative assessment in classrooms (cf. Bell and Cowie, 2001; Dorn, 2010; Herman et al., 2006), such that most educators ‘know’ that formative assessment ‘improves learning’ (“assessment which is explicitly designed to promote learning is the single most powerful tool we have for both raising standards and empowering lifelong learners”, Assessment Reform Group, 1999, p. 2), there is surprisingly little quantifiable supporting evidence of the type required by many researchers and policy makers (Dunn and Mulvenon, 2009; Higgins et al., 2013; Kingston and Nash, 2011).
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