In recent years, we educators have expanded our thinking about what the assessment process can do; we have moved beyond using it simply to judge and grade achievement to using it to make changes in teaching that will lead to greater learning. We have come to refer to this as formative assessment. As this use of assessment has grown in recent years, it has taken on many labels: benchmark, common, short-cycle, and interim assessment. When used formatively, assessments help students grow rather than merely holding them accountable for their learning. However, in formative assessment as traditionally conceived, it is the teacher whose information needs are met. A useful analogy is to view it as a "global positioning system" for teachers to use to find out where students are now so they can adjust instruction to get them to the next level of learning. What's missing from this conception is an acknowledgment that students are crucial decisionmakers too, and that formative assessment must also meet their information needs.
The assessment information is about the students, yet often we have overlooked the control they have over their own learning. We have neglected the fact that students can benefit from a global positioning system too. When formative assessment is cast as a tool for students to use, educators call it "assessment for learning," as explained in a book we co-authored with others, Classroom Assessment for Student Learning: Doing It Right-Using It Well.
Both formative assessment and assessment for learning are intended to provide information early enough in the decision-making process to influence student learning. As traditionally conceived, formative assessment helps teachers group students more effectively and select appropriate instructional interventions. The teacher uses the assessment information. However, the litmus test of an effective assessment for learning is that it informs students about their own learning, helping them focus their learning energies where they are likely to be most effective. So formative assessment enlightens the teacher, while assessment for learning enlightens the student.
Formative assessments tend to focus on academic achievement standards, providing results that reveal which standards students are or are not mastering. By identifying this information, formative assessments help teachers refine instructional programs in ways that enhance student success. However, assessment for learning doesn't ask who is and isn't meeting standards. Rather, it asks how each student is doing on her or his journey up the scaffolding leading to each standard. It provides this information to students in terms that they can understand, in order to support their decision making through levels of proficiency leading to success.
Formative assessment, as commonly used, provides evidence of student learning more frequently than does annual, large-scale summative testing-every few weeks, for example. It has become popular in part because annual testing occurs far too infrequently to support learning at a level of precision that is possible with periodic formative assessment. Besides, it can function well for the teacher as information to be used for course correction. On the other hand, assessment for learning keeps students and their teachers in touch with understanding and achievement on a continuous basis, allowing them to know what specific actions they can take to improve the learning every day. For example, teachers can use assessment information on day-to-day learning targets as feedback to students, pointing out what they have mastered and what they still need to work on. Students can then begin to self-assess, mirroring the process their teachers have used in giving feedback.
In traditional formative assessment contexts, teachers conduct the assessments, keep records, and track student progress. But in assessment for learning classrooms, we understand that when students self-assess regularly and track and share their progress, their confidence in themselves as learners and their motivation to do well grows along with their rising achievement.
When formative assessments inform timely decisions, arise from high-quality achievement standards, rely on accurate assessments, and provide results that are communicated effectively, they can enhance student learning. However, research conducted around the world over the past two decades, including research about the power of feedback recently published in Review of Educational Research, reveals that when assessment meets students' information needs-when students are informed about the learning targets from the beginning, engage in self-assessment, keep track of and regularly reflect on their own growth, and play a role in communicating their learning-the achievement gains are profound, especially for low achievers.
In other words, while formative assessment as traditionally defined can contribute to effective instruction, it is the practice of assessment for learning that wields the proven power to help a whole new generation of students take responsibility for their own learning, become lifelong learners, and achieve at much higher levels. When administrators give teachers the opportunity to learn the keys to effective use of assessment information and encourage these practices daily in the classroom, the result will be profound gains in achievement for all students, with the largest gains accruing for perennial low achievers. Teachers who seek this will follow these steps:
At the outset of instruction, make sure students have a clear, solid vision of the learning targets that they are responsible for achieving.
Provide every student with continuous access to accurate descriptive feedback that relates directly to the intended learning targets, pointing out both the strengths and weaknesses, or areas that need improvement.
Help students learn to engage in selfassessment and goal setting, to practice identifying their own strengths and areas for improvement.
Provide instruction that helps students improve the quality of their work one key attribute at a time, understanding that, ultimately, they must put all the pieces together.
Teach students to keep track of their achievement on specific learning targets and to reflect regularly on their growth so they develop a strong sense of academic self-sufficiency.
With these strategies, we develop in students a vision of what good work looks like from the beginning of the learning process, an understanding of where they are at any given point in relation to that standard of excellence, and a repertoire of actions for closing the gap between the two. This is assessment for learning.
Rick Stiggins is executive director of the Assessment Training Institute, and Jan Chappuis is an author and education solutions consultant with ATI. For more information, go to ETI's Web site, www.ets.org.