The purposes of this position statement are threefold and of equal importance: to clarify the meaning of the term “formative”; to describe the conditions necessary for teachers to use assessment to inform their teaching and support students’ learning; and to specify what it means to practice formative assessment inclusively in support of all learners. This statement, which aligns with NCTE’s core principles of literacy instruction and assessment, is a revision of a 2013 statement that focused on distinguishing true formative assessment from commercially produced products touted as formative assessment that are too frequently employed as accessories to standardized accountability systems. While this focus is still important, the NCTE Working Committee tasked with the authorship of this statement agreed that a revised statement on formative assessment must address even more urgent concerns about equity, diversity, and inclusion in assessment practice. The position of this statement is that true formative assessment depends on teachers assuming an inquiry stance, continually asking questions about what learners know and are ready to learn, viewing assessment as intertwined with learning, and practicing accountability with an ethic of care rather than one of consequences. It also requires offering students agency as coinquirers, providing them a variety of ways to demonstrate understanding, and supporting them in reflecting on their own learning.
This statement aligns with, and elaborates on, NCTE’s statement on literacy assessment, “Literacy Assessment: Definitions, Principles, and Practices,” which presents a set of principles to characterize effective and accurate literacy assessment, as well as the statement “The Role of English Teachers in Educating English Language Learners.”
BODY OF STATEMENT
How do literacy teachers decide what to teach next, how, and to whom? Schools provide curriculum guides, learning standards, and mandated assessments that can offer teachers some direction, but how do we navigate the possible paths between predetermined outcomes and the diverse needs of our students, with particular respect for the linguistic and cultural resources that might not be immediately present in standards and assessments? It is teachers, and not test-producing entities or accountability offices, who are best qualified to identify paths that are responsive to the linguistic and cultural resources that students bring to literacy learning.
A key component of this complex knowledge building and instructional design process is formative assessment—assessment for the purpose of finding out what students know and don’t yet know, with the goal of providing feedback and instruction that matches students’ needs and supports the positive development of each student (Bloom, 1968). Formative assessment informs teachers and students about the teaching and learning that has happened and helps them form a plan for what should happen next (Fisher & Frey 2007).
The term formative assessment has taken on multiple meanings (Serafini, 2000. In the most basic sense, a formative assessment can be a particular tool or experience that a teacher uses to gather information from students, such as a short writing prompt or an observation of children during play. Formative assessment can also refer to a practice of or commitment to frequently checking for understanding and adjusting instruction. Problematically, commercially produced, ready-made assessments are often labeled as “formative” perhaps because of their brevity or similarity to a looming future “summative” assessment.
This statement, however, takes the position that true formative assessment requires teachers to take an inquiry stance, understanding that instruction and assessment are inextricably linked and oftentimes inseparable (Shepard, 2000). When a teacher assumes a formative assessment stance—i.e., consistently asks questions to discover what students know and are ready to learn—every tool or activity that occurs in the classroom is formative in nature, and frequent checks for understanding aren’t an “add-on” to teaching—they are the heart of teaching (Genishi & Dyson, 1984). These questions may be asked about the class as a whole or about a particular student; they may be about a major learning milestone or a tiny point of confusion; they may be answered with a quick observation or a folder full of artifacts. During this inquiry, teachers and students work as constant coinquirers into the individual and collective learning of the class (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 2009). Teachers ask meaningful questions about current understanding and levels of performance, keep formal and informal records of growth and areas of challenge, and design instruction that responds to what they learn through that inquiry. Formative assessment practiced in this way occurs in the immediate learning context with sensitivity and respect for linguistic and cultural differences among teachers and students and a sense of accountability grounded in an ethic of care rather than a focus on power and consequences (Genishi & Dyson 2009; Noddings, 2006). Formative assessment practiced in this way becomes a lever for equity as well as learning. This table summarizes key characteristics of formative assessment as an inquiry stance.
An inquiry- and equity-oriented formative assessment stance involves the following dimensions: (1) alignment of purpose, analysis, and use of assessment; (2) a repertoire of assessment practices that suit various purposes; and (3) a broad knowledge base that allows teachers to align formative assessment practices with larger goals for learning and with student needs.
Dimension 1: Aligning Purpose, Analysis, and Use
Accepting that formative assessment is an ongoing, cyclical process that draws on multiple points of data can feel overwhelming for teachers. Peter Johnston (2012) encourages teachers to focus by reminding us that “the heart of formative assessment is finding the edge of students’ learning and helping them to take up possibilities of growth. Assessment isn’t formative if it doesn’t influence learning in a positive way” (p. 49 ). To practice formative assessment that influences learning and is actionable, precise, and co-constructed with students, begin by working to align purpose, analysis, and use.
Purpose refers to formative assessment generally as well as to specific tasks. When we articulate our purposes for assessment, students will join teachers in designing ways to authentically measure their learning process and using the data gathered to monitor and adjust their learning process. Articulating purpose also involves identifying goals that relate to important content or community knowledge. Being deliberate and intentional about the purpose of assessment allows us to find the learning edge and support growth (Johnston, 2012).
Analyzing formative assessment data involves triangulating, which means analyzing multiple sources of data to illuminate patterns, resolve questions, or gain insights about particular students and about the classroom as a whole. Alongside teachers, students should be key partners in analyzing data using triangulation. The insights students can provide on their own learning process provides the feedback necessary to progress. When the analysis is done with the students and involves non-evaluative, specific, and timely feedback, it creates opportunities for students to revise and improve their work as well as deepen their understanding.
Effective feedback can be used to answer three interrelated questions: “Where I am going? . . . How am I going? . . . Where to next?” (Hattie & Timperley, 2007, p. 86). In order to answer these questions, feedback must be related to the purpose of assessment and to learning goals that are clearly articulated for and with students. Working with students on how to use feedback for metacognitive growth involves deliberate reflection on the meaning of learning goals and the development of plans for reaching the desired goals. Our overarching goals as teachers should be to improve the quality of feedback that we give students, that students give us, and that students give themselves.
Dimension 2. Diversifying Methods and Tools of Formative Assessment
Just as curriculum needs to shift and move with the times, assessment should also account for the multiple modes, knowledges, and identities that young people bring to and develop in classroom spaces. Central to assessment work is an attention to the diverse cultural, linguistic, and social resources children develop in their racial and ethnic communities. That is, formative assessment should expand rather than narrow teachers’ understanding of language and literacy capacities and include rather than exclude culturally sustaining language practices (Paris & Alim, 2017). Like literacy, assessments are social interactions that are influenced by the tools/strategies available. Methods and tools should:
- represent multimodal approaches
- decenter the overdependence on and use of print
- forefront a listening stance alongside a teaching stance
- consider formal and informal spaces of learning, and
- place importance on gathering information from a variety of sources, places, and people, including parents, teachers, community members.
In this section, we examine the informal ways to observe, document, and account for learning throughout the school day.
Careful observation is the foundation of a teacher’s assessment work. Teachers who observe students engaged in language use and learning come to know their students’ strengths and challenges and are then able to plan supportive classroom learning experiences. We note that observations should occur in both formal and informal learning times (e.g., scheduled play times, independent work time, group learning activities, recess). Students demonstrate some of their best skills and dexterity in language when involved in peer interactions, specifically students from diverse cultural communities. If we are to honor children’s rich language practices and funds of knowledge (González et al., 2006), we encourage observations to also occur outside of formal learning where students have autonomy to demonstrate language and literacy in authentic and flexible ways. Learning to observe closely, to see beyond assumptions and predictions within varied, situated contexts, is central to the development of a formative assessment stance. Please see this chart of Formative Assessment Tools and Strategies for a description of observational tools.
Part of understanding the depth and range of student competencies requires an inquiry stance from teachers: What do teachers already know about students and how can teachers learn more? As many qualitative researchers note, our questions come from a desire and need to know more about the social, cultural, and political lives of young people (Dyson & Genishi, 2005). Based on questions they have about student learning, teachers may ask students for specific information by conducting surveys and different types of interviews or conferences. These may take a broad look at assessment information in general or target specific aspects of learning. Teachers can elicit information from students through surveys, assessment stories, or photo-elicitation interviews. For more examples, see the chart of Formative Assessment Tools and Strategies for descriptions of elicitation tools and strategies.
Interactions are a time for readers/writers to discuss their process and product. Conducted one on one or in small groups, interactions should be conversational as listening and learning are central goals to this format. Teachers may incorporate open-ended questions, such as “When you are reading and you come to something you don’t know, what do you do?” (Goodman et al., 2005) or “What would you like to do better as a writer?” or others based on the specific questions they have about student learning. Teachers should be cognizant of the interactional styles of specific students: Do they feel more comfortable responding to questions through a video by themselves? Do students feel comfortable interviewing each other and answering questions with their peers? Are there ways teachers can move out of verbo-centric interviews by having students respond through drawings, photography, or images? Are there different configurations in which students feel more comfortable sharing (e.g., small group interviews or by interest)? See the chart of Formative Assessment Tools and Strategies for descriptions of Interaction-based Tools and Strategies for more suggestions.
Student self-evaluations, an important component of formative assessment, are deliberate efforts to elicit student perspectives on their own learning. Students may reflect on progress toward a goal, on processes used for reading or writing, on new goals, or on lingering questions. Self-evaluations encourage students to monitor their own learning and learning needs and can serve as an additional source of information on student learning. Student self-evaluations can take many forms. See the chart of Formative Assessment Tools and Strategies for descriptions of Student Self-evaluation Tools and Strategies for examples.
Dimension 3: Teacher Knowledge for Appropriate Use of Tools and Strategies
Undergirding the alignment of purpose and tools is teacher knowledge about assessment, language and literacy, and learners’ needs. Teachers will be best positioned to practice formative assessment from an inquiry stance and with an ethic of care if they have been supported in developing the following: assessment literacy, knowledge of language and literacy, knowledge of learners and their needs, and knowledge of their options for assessment-informed action.
Knowledge of assessment—what it is and how to use it—should be considered a core aspect of pedagogical content knowledge (Grossman et al., 2005). A growing body of research and scholarship has identified dimensions of the knowledge that teachers should have in order to be able to use assessment tools (summative as well as formative) accurately, thoroughly, and fairly. In addition to basic procedural knowledge of how to use various assessment tools and theoretical knowledge of key concepts such as reliability and validity, assessment literacy includes: knowing how to select assessments that are purposefully aligned with teachers’ instructional goals and questions about students, knowing how to communicate assessment results fairly and ethically with respect for the rights and privacy of students, and knowing how to use assessment for learning to inform their instructional decision making (DeLuca et al., 2016).
Knowledge of Language and Literacy
In order for teachers to apply these dimensions of assessment literacy they must have deep knowledge of the content they are teaching. For English language arts teachers, this means deep knowledge of reading, writing, and language skills. Understanding the many facets of the complex processes of reading (Scarborough) and writing (Graham, 2018) is a crucial prerequisite for choosing or designing assessments that align with a teacher’s instructional goals and for interpreting results in a meaningful, fair, and ethical way. Teachers who work with English language learners should consult the NCTE Position Statement on the Role of English Teachers in Educating English Language Learners, and the resources embedded within that statement, for a thorough inventory of the kinds of knowledge needed to practice effective formative assessment with this diverse and heterogeneous population. Concrete and assessable goals will emerge from this knowledge; these then determine the tools a teacher will use. In the absence of this knowledge, schools run the risk of letting the tools drive the assessment process. Administrators should balance their professional development investment accordingly.
Knowledge of Learners and Their Needs
In order to use assessment tools in a meaningful, fair, and culturally responsive way, teachers need to know their students as learners holistically and be able to attend to the nuances of students’ activity and emotional state when engaging in any assessment activity. For example, they should be able to notice whether a particular assessment tool has captured the full range of students’ literacy competence or only a limited dimension (Spence, 2010). Teachers need to know what students’ own goals for learning are in order to give feedback and convey assessment findings in ways that students will interpret as meaningful to them (Andrade2010). Teachers need to be mindful that formative assessment is not about them but about their students.
Knowledge of Options for Assessment-Informed Action
Informing instruction and providing feedback are key characteristics of formative assessment. When teachers analyze what they have learned and observed from their formative assessment practice and from specific formative assessment tools, they need to do so with a sense of how they will turn this analysis into meaningful feedback for students and how they will adjust their teaching based on what they have learned.
Sarah W. Beck, New York University, New York, NY (chair)
Sarah Bonner, Heyworth Community Unit 4 School District, Heyworth, IL
Scott Filkins, University of Illinois Writing Project & Champaign Unit 4 Schools, Champaign, IL
Clare Landrigan, Staff developer and author, Newton, MA
Haeny Yoon, Teachers College, Columbia University, New York, NY
Andrade, H. (2010). Students as the definitive source of formative assessment: Academic self-assessment and the self-regulation of learning. In H. Andrade & G. Cizek, (Eds.), Handbook of formative assessment (pp. 90–105) Routledge.
Bloom, B. S. (1968). Learning for mastery. Instruction and curriculum. Regional Education Laboratory for the Carolinas and Virginia, Topical Papers and Reprints, Number 1.
Cochran-Smith, M., & Lytle, S. L. (2009). Inquiry as stance, practitioner research for the next generation. Teachers College Press.
DeLuca, C., LaPointe-McEwan, D., & Luhanga, U. (2016). Teacher assessment literacy: A review of international standards and measures. Educational Assessment, Evaluation and Accountability, 28, 251–72
Dyson, A. H., & Genishi, C. (2005). On the case (Vol. 76). Teachers College Press
Fisher, D., & Frey, N. (2007). Checking for understanding. ASCD.
Genishi, C., & Dyson, A. H. (2009). Assessing children’s language and literacy: Dilemmas in time. In C. Genishi & A. H. Dyson (Eds.), Children, language, and literacy: Diverse learners in diverse times. Teachers College Press.
Genishi, C., and Dyson, A. H. (1984). Language assessment in the early years. Language and Learning for Human Service Professions Monograph Series. Ablex.
González, N., Moll, L. C., & Amanti, C. (Eds.). (2006). Funds of knowledge: Theorizing practices in households, communities, and classrooms. Routledge.
Goodman, Y., Watson, D., & Burke, C. (2005). Reading miscue inventory: From evaluation to instruction. Richard C. Owen Publishers, Inc.
Graham, S. (2018). A revised writer(s)-within-community model of writing. Educational Psychologist, 53(4), 258–79,
Grossman, P., Schoenfeld, A., & Lee, C. (2005). Teaching subject matter. In L. Darling-Hammong & J. Bransford (Eds.), Preparing teachers for a changing world (pp. 201–31). Jossey Bass.
Hattie, J., & Timperley, H. (2007). The power of feedback. Review of Educational Research, 77(1), 81–112.
Johnston, P. (2012). Opening minds: Using language to change lives. Stenhouse.
Noddings, N. (2006). The Challenge to care in schools: An alternative approach to education (2nd ed). Teachers College.
Paris, D., & Alim, H. S. (Eds.). (2017). Culturally sustaining pedagogies: Teaching and learning for justice in a changing world. Teachers College Press.
Scarborough, H. S. (2001). Connecting early language and literacy to later reading (dis)abilities: Evidence, theory, and practice. In S. Neuman & D. Dickinson (Eds.), Handbook for research in early literacy (pp. 97–110). Guilford Press.
Serafini, F. (2000). Three paradigms of assessment: Measurement, procedure, and inquiry. The Reading Teacher, 54(4), 384–93. Retrieved Oct. 19, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/20204924
Shepard, L. A. (2000). The role of assessment in a learning culture. Educational Researcher, 29(7), 4–14.
Additional Relevant Resources
Research/Theory of Formative Assessment
Afflerbach, P. (Ed.). (2010). Essential readings on assessment. International Reading Association.
Andrade, H., & Cizek, G. (Eds.). (2010). Handbook of formative assessment. Routledge.
Gallagher, C. W. (2008) Kairos and informative assessment: Rethinking the formative/summative distinction in Nebraska. Theory into Practice, 48, 81–88.
National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE). (2009). Standards for the assessment of reading and writing (Revised ed.). NCTE and IRA.
McMillan, J. H. (Ed.). (2007). Formative classroom assessment. Teachers College Press.
How-to References and Classroom Tools
Beck, S. (2018). Think-aloud writing assessment: Analyzing process and product with adolescent writers. Teachers College Press.
Boudett, K., City, E., & Murnane, R. (Eds.). (2013). Data wise: A step-by-step guide to using assessment results to improve teaching and learning (2nd ed.). Harvard Education Press.
Collier, L. (2013). Finding and using evidence of student learning. The Council Chronicle, (Sept.), 6–9. NCTE.
Filkins, S. (2012). Beyond standardized truth: Improving teaching and learning through inquiry-based reading assessment. NCTE.
Filkins, S. (2013). Rethinking adolescent reading assessment: From accountability to care. English Journal, 103(1), 48–53.
Fiore, L. (2012). Assessment of young children: A collaborative approach. Routledge.
Gallagher, C. W., & Turley, E. D. (2012). Our better judgment: Teacher leadership for writing assessment. NCTE.
Heritage, M. (2007). Formative assessment: What do teachers need to know and do? Phi Delta Kappan, 89(2).
Inoue, A. B. (2015). Antiracist writing assessment ecologies: Teaching and assessing writing for a socially just future. Perspectives on writing. The WAC Clearinghouse; Parlor Press. https://wac.colostate.edu/books/perspectives/inoue/
Landrigan, C., & Mulligan, T. (2013). Assessment in perspective: Focusing on the readers behind the numbers. Stenhouse.
Murphy, S., & Smith, M. A. (2013). Assessment challenges in the common core era. English Journal, 103(1), 104–110.
Pierce, K. M., & Ordoñez-Jasis, R. (2018). Going public with assessment: A community practice approach. NCTE
Pinchok, N., & Brandt, W. C. (2009). Connecting formative assessment research to practice: An introductory guide for educators. Learning Point Associates.
Serafini, F. (2010). Classroom reading assessments: More efficient ways to view and evaluate your readers. Heinemann.
Stephens, D. (2013). Reading assessment: Artful teachers, successful students. NCTE.
Tomlinson, C. (Dec. 2007/Jan. 2008). Learning to love assessment. Educational Leadership, 65(4), 8–13.
Tovani, C. (2011). So what do they really know? Assessment that informs teaching and learning. Stenhouse.
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