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Defining and Enhancing Formative Assessment

This KnowledgeBase archive includes content and external links that were accurate and relevant as of September 30, 2019.

This paper by Dr. James Popham proposes a definition for formative assessment and discusses issues impacting its effectiveness. It was prepared for presentation at the October 10-13, 2006, meeting of the Formative Assessment for Students and Teachers subgroup of CCSSO's State Collaborative on Assessment and Student Standards held in Austin, Texas. As noted in the document's preamble, the paper is broken into two parts. The first part offers thoughts on a definition of formative assessment for the meeting's participants to consider. The second part provides his recommendations regarding ways to enhance formative assessment.


Defining Formative Assessment

Prior to this October 2006 conference, a subgroup consisting of Dylan Wiliam, Lorrie Shepard, Rick Stiggins, Scott Marion, Phoebe Winter, Don Long, Stuart Kahl, Brian Gong and Popham interacted to develop a definition of formative assessment. They proposed the following:

"An assessment is formative to the extent that information from the assessment is used, during the instructional segment in which the assessment occurred, to adjust instruction with the intent of better meeting the needs of the students assessed."

After presenting this definition, Popham proceeded to discuss several key components of it.

"In using the term assessment it is envisioned that both formal and informal means are used to gauge the students' level of understanding of what is being taught."

Secondly, "the results of the assessment must be available to the students and teachers to use while there is time to make adjustments to the instruction assessed." He points outs that "if there's no time to make the changes in instruction that may be indicated by the test's results, the test should not be regarded as formative."

The third key point is "that adjustments to instruction are made to meet the needs of the students."


Enhancing Formative Assessment

In the second part of this paper, Popham addresses "four concerns that developers and users of formative assessment should keep mind to improve of the affect of formative assessment on student learning." The four areas addressed include involving students, distinguishing assessments intended for teacher use and student use, construct formative assessments so the information is useful for the intended users and having the control situated as close to the classroom as possible.

Student participation - Popham points out that "roughly half the payoff from classroom formative assessment can, and should, come from involving students actively in the instructional use of formal and informal assessment." He says "teachers should differentiate between 'learning-focused' tests and 'grading-focused' tests." He states "there is a place for both in the classroom, and it is incumbent on the teacher to clearly state to the students when each is being used."

Different users warrant different assessments - Popham differentiates between the needs of teachers and those of the students. In his view, "teachers need the information to help them decide whether they need to modify their instructional activities and, if so, what the nature of such modifications should be." While "students need to know if their learning tactics are working, and if they aren't, what sorts of changes in those learning tactics might prove beneficial." Accordingly, he advocates that "the assessment developer should be asking who is to use the output of the assessment." Then the assessment should be designed to meet those needs.

Useful information - The output of the assessment must be useful for the intended user. Popham believes "the person generating a formative assessment must constantly be wearing an 'instruction-focused' thinking cap if the assessment is for teachers and a 'learning-focused' thinking cap if the assessment is for students."

Control considerations - In regard to control, Popham suggests "the closer that formative assessments are to the actual instructional events taking place in classrooms, the more likely will be their positive impact on student learning." He acknowledges creating effective formative assessments is hard work and time consuming. Therefore, he suggests a role for the states to serve as developer and provider, and formative assessments tied to the state curriculum for use by classroom teachers. He believes "if this use of formative assessments becomes onerous, few teachers will continue using such assessments. State departments of education and school districts can lessen the burden on a state's teachers by creating assessment tools that can be used by those classroom teachers who wish to do so."

To read the complete paper, click on the source document.


Defining and Enhancing Formative Assessment, W. James Popham, University of California, Los Angels, September 15, 2006; A paper for presentation at the October 10-13, 2006 CCSSO State Collaborative on Assessment and Student Standards / Formative Assessment for Students and Teachers meeting.

"W. JAMES POPHAM, Ed.D., is one of the country's foremost authorities on educational testing. He was a professor in the UCLA Graduate School of Education for 29 years, teaching prospective teachers about testing and how to use testing as a means toward more effective classroom instruction. He is the author of more than 20 books and 300 articles and papers, primarily on educational testing. In 1968, Popham established IOX Assessment Associates, a Los Angeles test-development and evaluation agency that has created statewide student achievement tests for a dozen states. In addition, he is a former president of the American Educational Research Association (AERA) and the founding editor of its quarterly journal, Educational Evaluation and Policy."

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