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Formative Assessment Overview

We believe that formative assessment is one of the most effective strategies for improving opportunity to learn for all students. Our belief is supported by the research of Black and Wiliam (1998) and others who have shown that formative assessment significantly improves student learning and is one of the most effective ways to close the achievement gap. Our content- and research-based approach to formative assessment is based upon the seminal finding from How People Learn (Bransford et al., 1999 p.14) that "if students' initial understanding is not engaged, they may fail to grasp new concepts and information presented in the classroom, or they may learn them for the purposes of a test but revert to their preconceptions." Because science is the discipline in which students learn about the natural world, science teaching and learning presents unique challenges because children begin interacting with the natural world and trying to make sense of phenomena through their daily experiences long before they begin school as well as through school and everyday experiences that occur during their K-12 school years. Furthermore, these ideas are strongly held and resistant to change unless teachers use appropriate strategies to uncover them and design experiences that will help students willingly give up their "misconceptions" in favor of a scientific idea. Likewise students in mathematics may harbor misunderstandings or common misconceptions that often go unnoticed and are repeated year after year if teachers don't have the appropriate tools and techniques to surface these misunderstandings and use the data to inform teaching that focuses on the specific mathematical needs of students. In addition our formative assessment work focuses on a metacognitive approach to teaching and learning where students learn to make their ideas visible to themselves as well as their peers and teachers. By using formative assessment to help students be more aware of their own thinking, they are more apt to take control of their own learning and monitor their own progress toward achieveing scientific and mathematical ideas. All of our formative assessment tools, resources, and professional development target these 10 key points:


  • Assessment is not formative unless you use the information to plan or modify your instruction with the intent to support learning. Our tools help teachers not only uncover students' ideas and ways of thinking, but also provide suggestions for ways to formatively address them.
  • Probes and FACTs are assessments for learning- they differ from summative assessments in that they not only inform instruction, they also promote learning. Not everything students do needs to be graded. We advocate using these tools formatively, without passing "judgment" on students by assigning a grade. However we do provide suggestions for linking our formative assessment resources to summative assessment.
  • Misconceptions are strongly held. It takes time and carefully designed instruction to help students give them up. Correcting students’ misconceptions before they have an opportunity to think through their ideas and modify them does not support conceptual change. Our SAIL (Science Assessment, Instruction and Learning) and MAIL (Mathematics Assessment Instruction and Learning) Cycles promote conceptual change through effective and appropriate use of formative assessment consistent with what the research tells us about how students learn science and mathematics.
  • To use formative assessment effectively, it is important to establish a safe classroom environment where all students’ ideas, regardless of whether they are right or wrong, are encouraged, respected, and valued. Our tools and processes support this type of learning environment and can help teachers and students make the transition to an idea-centered classroom.
  • Formative assessment is purposeful. Probes and FACTs are always linked to a teaching and learning outcome. Collect formative assessment data with intention and act on it purposefully. Our books provide explicit purposes and linkages to the instructional cycle, explanations for how a FACT promotes learning and informs instruction in science or mathematics, and connections to national standards and cognitive research.
  • Formative assessment is used continuously throughout an instructional cycle: before teaching- to elicit students’ ideas, throughout an instructional unit- to monitor learning and provide feedback, and at the end- for reflection. Our collection of over 300 probes and FACTs provide questions and strategies teachers can use throughout the instructional cycle.
  • Formative assessment probes and FACTs support development of communication skills in science and mathematics. Use formative assessment to provide opportunities for students to share their thinking and engage in rich discourse and argumentation using evidence-based reasoning. We encourage the use of formative assessment in "talk" contexts as well as paper/pencil assessments.
  • Formative assessment yields greater results in a collaborative school culture where teachers share student learning data, and work together to refine their use of formative assessment. Our books provide strategies for using formative assessment in professional learning communities (PLCs), teacher action research, and other forms of professional learning.
  • Formative assessment in science and mathematics differs from other subject areas such as English language arts due to the conceptual nature of the disciplines and the impact preconceptions have on student learning. For this reason, formative assessment cannot be a “one size fits all disciplines” generic approach. Science and mathematics teachers must have access to specific tools for formative assessment and professional development opportunities that target the content they teach. All of our probes and FACTs are science and mathematics content-specific and address the core ideas in the national standards.
  • Start small- pick one probe or FACT, try it out, and evaluate its success before trying multiple strategies. We encourage you to not to try and "do it all". Build a repertoire of strategies and techniques for using the probes gradually.
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