About Formative Assessment

Formative assessment has attracted the attention of many educators. This is partly due to spreading recog­nition that increased summative assessment (especially in the form of standardized tests) is not producing intended improvements in student achievement, and in part because of research which shows that formative assessment can accelerate and deepen learning.

The Arts Assessment for Learning project has demonstrated that formative assess­ment can play a central role in arts edu­cation by focusing teachers and students on the learning goals, the gaps between students’ performances and those goals, and ways to close those gaps.

  • What is formative assessment? How does it differ from summative assessment?

  • The word assessment typically refers to summative assessment, which involves measuring students’ achievement after they’ve completed the work, and then handing out their grades. In this situation, the only question available to students is: “How did I do?” Until their final evaluations are delivered, sometimes with serious consequences, students have little information about their performance.

  • Formative assessment, in contrast, is an ongoing process that mirrors integral aspects of the artistic process itself: Students are given criteria that describe high-quality performances, provided with feedback, and encouraged to revise their work. Through this process, students take charge of their creations as they evolve, and develop abilities to independently work and think like artists. Ultimately, this creates greater student motivation.

  • Where Am I Going?

    Revealing What Counts. In a formative assessment process, students know what good means before they begin. At the start of a lesson, whether brief or extended, teachers give students the criteria by which they’ll be assessed, and then help them plan to achieve their learning goals. To facilitate this process, teachers produce tools, such as checklists and rubrics, that clearly define and describe the criteria. In some cases, students even participate in the creation of these tools. As they create and share their work, students refer to the tools for guidance in making artistic choices.

  • Where Am I Now?

    Feedback. Because criteria are transparent in a formative assessment process, feedback is not a surprise to students. In addition, because students can revise their work, feedback offers helpful information to improve work, rather than a grade at the conclusion of work completed. Feedback can come from students themselves as self- or peer assessment, as well as from the teacher. It can be given to individuals, small groups, or whole ensemble structures. Many classrooms already practice feedback. Formative assessment helps to structure this practice by focusing it on clear criteria, using protocols that ensure it is constructive, and actively engaging students in it, thereby enhancing its usefulness to both students and teachers.

  • How Do I Get There?

    Revision. Formative assessment makes revision part and parcel of its process. Students reflect on their own work as well as take feedback from their classmates, teachers, and decide whether and how to respond to it, and revise their work to reflect their choices, always with the criteria in mind. In a formative assessment approach, achievement is a gradual process of reiteration, and students are in control of their choices.

Value Added

  • Learning Happens Faster. Studies have shown that formative assessment accelerates learning. The action research conducted and documented by educators involved in Arts Assessment for Learning corroborates this: Many teachers have noted that the time spent setting up and acclimating their students to a formative assessment process was more than made up by the speed at which their students achieved standards and benchmarks. In the classroom, feedback is a shared responsibility. Students receive feedback from peers and are less dependent on teacher feedback alone. This climate of constructive critique fosters studio habits of working like an artist—a process that student artists find motivational.

  • Students Grow Artistically. Formative assessment focused our students on their works and work processes and, as a result, they took far more ownership of both than they did in the past. For example, a third-grade English language learner in Queens, during a peer review of her drawing, disagreed with a recommendation to make the branches of her tree look ”thicker.” Searching for the right word, she said, “But I want my tree to be delicate.” She’d taken ownership of her work, articulated her decision, and stuck to it. This happens frequently in classrooms that practice formative assessment. Students build confidence in their artistic voices by working and thinking like artists. They know the criteria they need to reach, they take feedback on how to lead their work in that direction, but ultimately, the choices are theirs

  • Teachers Grow Too. Formative assessment also provides information for teachers that helps them become more effective. For example, a music teacher in Brooklyn used a formative assessment tool called an exit ticket with her second-grade recorder students. At the end of each lesson, students indicated their strengths and areas for improvement on individual tickets, and deposited them in a pocket chart with clearly marked criteria. The teacher was able to use these self-assessments to reorganize small groups and partnerships, and to plan subsequent lessons to address student needs. In addition, because students in a formative assessment process know what they need to achieve, how to assess their progress, and how to give and take constructive criticism, their teachers spend less time managing behaviors or issuing direct instruction, and more time listening to students, engaging in exchanges, and discovering new faculties for efficient management and leadership from within a community of learners.

Assessment of and for Learning:
Video Series

Dr. Heidi Andrade is an Associate Professor of Educational Psychology and the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at the School of Education, University at Albany, SUNY. In this series, Dr. Andrade engages the viewer in understanding:

  • The similarities and differences between formative and summative assessment
  • How formative assessment can promote learning and achievement via feedback
  • Why and how to involve students in their own assessment
  • How to identify and/or create high quality rubrics

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