What makes a good formative assessment?

This is part 5 of a series of blogs on my new book, Making Good Progress?: The future of Assessment for Learning. Click here to read the introduction to the series.

In the last two blog posts – here and here –  I’ve spoken about the importance of breaking down complex skills into smaller pieces. This has huge implications for formative assessments, where the aim is to improve a pupil’s performance, not just to measure it.

Although we typically speak of ‘formative assessment’ and ‘summative assessment’, actually, the same assessment can be used for both formative and summative purposes. What matters is how the information from an assessment is used. A test can be designed to give a pupil a grade, but a teacher can use the information from individual questions on the test paper to diagnose a pupil’s weaknesses and decide what work to give them next. In this case, the teacher is taking an assessment that has been designed for summative purposes, but using it formatively.

Whilst it is possible to reuse assessments in this way, it is also true that some types of assessment are simply better suited for formative purposes than others. Because complex skills can be broken down into smaller pieces, there is great value in designing assessments which try to capture progress against these smaller units.

However, too often, a lot of formative assessments are simply mini-summative assessments – tasks that are really similar in style and substance to the final summative task, with the only difference being that they have been slightly reduced in size. So for example, if the final assessment is a full essay on the causes of the first world war, the formative assessment is one paragraph on how the assassination of Franz Ferdinand contributed to the start of the first world war. If the final summative assessment is an essay analysing the character of Bill Sikes, the formative assessment is an essay analysing Fagin. The idea is that the comments and improvements a teacher gives pupils on the formative essay will help them improve for the summative essay.

But I would argue that in order to improve at a complex task, sometimes we need to practise other types of task. Here is Dylan Wiliam commenting on this, in the context of baseball.

The coach has to design a series of activities that will move athletes from their current state to the goal state. Often coaches will take a complex activity, such as the double play in baseball, and break it down into a series of components, each of which needs to be practised until fluency is reached, and then the components are assembled together. Not only does the coach have a clear notion of quality (the well-executed double play), he also understands the anatomy of quality; he is able to see the high-quality performance as being composed of a series of elements that can be broken down into a developmental sequence for the athlete. (Embedded Formative Assessment, p.122)

Wiliam calls this series of activities ‘a model of progression’. When you break a complex activity down into a series of components, what you end up with often doesn’t look like the final activity. When you break down the skill of writing an essay into its constituent parts, what you end up with doesn’t look like an essay. I wrote about this about five years ago, where I set out what I felt were some of the series of activities that could help pupils become a good writer.

Once we’ve established a model of progression in a subject, then we can think about how to measure progress – and measuring progress is what the next post will be about.

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