Why Don't More Teachers Practice Proper Formative Assessment?

Research that fails to impact practice is a problem in any arena, and education is no exception. Teachers have many reasons for not implementing practices based on research. Too often research is unknown to teachers, locked away in journals that teachers and schools cannot afford. Beyond the cost of access, much of the best research is generally written for higher academic audiences and not easily digested by a busy and distracted practicing teacher. Transforming research into improved practice takes time, effort and patience, and is made easier in a professional community who share ideas and experiences. Teachers are constantly improving their practice, but too often the improvements are driven by personal failures or anecdotal evidence, not the quality results of dedicated educational researchers. This is a crippling inefficiency in the field of education, one that is largely self-imposed and tied to traditional practices held in place by the inertia of our experience.

Research strongly suggests that teachers could improve student learning by using formative assessment. Chapter tests and final exams are summative: they summarize the knowledge and skills a student has acquired, and are generally assigned a fixed grade. In fact, any assignment or task assigned a fixed and lasting grade can be considered summative, at least in part. Formative assessment, in contrast, focuses on improvement rather than final measurement. Teachers use formative assessment to adapt their teaching, and students, equal partners in the process, use feedback and self-monitoring to improve their knowledge and skills.

For any classroom teacher, the concept of formative assessment should be comprehensible and implementation should not be impeded by any significant obstacles. So why don't more teachers practice proper formative assessment? I suggest two simple reasons, reasons that could be eliminated by improved understanding between teachers, administrators, teachers, and parents.

Reason 1: Teachers think they're already doing formative assessment. My early understanding of summative versus formative assessment came from my curriculum director, who simply defined the two this way: "Summative assessments are tests and quizzes you grade, and formative assessments are anything you use to guide your instruction. You are already doing formative assessment all the time." These definitions were vague and incomplete, but not necessarily incorrect. The real problem was the message that we were "already doing formative assessment." Why then should we, a room full of teachers feeling burdened yet open to new ideas, seek to improve our practice of something we were apparently already doing? Just as with students, there is danger in false praise. Even worse, I knew my questioning techniques in whole-class activities were lacking. Had I been properly introduced to formative assessment, I may have improved my questioning practices and sought better ways to assess student understanding. I shouldn't have been led to think I was doing something well when in reality, I wasn't, or denied access to information that would have helped me improve.

Reason 2: Teachers are pressured to assess performance with grades. Grading practices can influence assessment practices, and pressure to assign grades for all classroom activity can inhibit the use of true formative assessment. In a world of 24/7 access to online gradebooks, parents and students expect to see near real-time measures of progress and achievement on their computer screens. To expect the full benefits of formative assessment, students must invest themselves in the improvement process as much as teachers. Once a teacher assigns a grade to a task, the message received by the student and parent is of summation – the task is complete, learning has been measured, and it's time to move on to the next task. The teacher might not want to send this message, but what's important is the message received by the student, not what was intended by the teacher. The sophisticated give-and-take of formative assessment is best recorded and measured outside the simple percentages and averages calculated by our technically limited gradebooks.

Formative assessment is understandable and practical, but inhibited by false assumptions. Administrators falsely assume teachers already know and use it, and teachers falsely assume students are willing and able to translate a summative grade into formative feedback. Fortunately, both of these obstacles can be overcome through better a understanding of formative assessment, improved communication, and a commitment to collaboration. Teachers, students, and parents alike should welcome an increased focus on improvement, instead of the summative and often harsh dependence on grades and percentages. Summative assessments and grades might be more familiar, but that doesn't make them easier or more beneficial.