In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Formative Assessment

  • Introduction
  • The Evolution of Formative Assessment
  • Theory and Formative Assessment
  • Formative Assessment and Student Achievement
  • The Role of Feedback in Formative Assessment
  • Formative Assessment Process and Practice in the Classroom?
  • Formative Assessment as Part of a Balanced Assessment System
  • Developing Teacher Capacity for Formative Assessment
  • Standards
  • National and International Reports

Education Formative Assessment
Leslie W. Grant, Christopher R. Gareis, Sarah P. Hylton
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 May 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756810-0062


Formative assessment has received international attention as an instructional approach that has great potential to improve teaching and learning. The concept has roots in educational evaluation practices and has evolved over time, from a focus on formative evaluation to formative assessment or assessment for learning. Although one singular definition has not emerged among researchers, scholars, and practitioners, shared themes across the sources suggest the emergence of common elements of formative assessment: Formative assessment is a cyclical process that involves interactions among teachers and students. Those interactions include prompting thinking and eliciting information. The information is then gathered and analyzed by both the teacher and the students. Finally, teachers and students provide feedback, and the student makes use of the feedback to either confirm or improve their understandings and/or skills. Research into these common elements will continue to inform our evolving understanding of the formative assessment process. This article first addresses the evolution of formative assessment and the theories that have informed the conceptualization of and research into the formative assessment process. The work of the Assessment Reform Group in the 1990s catapulted formative assessment into the spotlight for teacher education programs, teacher professional development, and educational research primarily due to claims of the impact on student achievement. This article provides often cited, seminal research studies claiming to provide evidence of a link between formative assessment and student achievement. Being central to the formative assessment process, works addressing the role of feedback are explored. The next two sections focus on works that have emerged to support implementation of the formative assessment process in the classroom and works to support the development of balanced assessment systems that include formative assessment at both the classroom and the school system levels. Over time, professional organizations have developed and revised standards to address both uses of assessments, to include formative assessments, in the classroom as well as standards for the development of educator knowledge, skills, and dispositions. The standards provided in this article represent the most referenced standards in the assessment and evaluation field. Finally, national reports from the United States and international reports noted in the final section provide insight into evolving policies and practices and signal the emergence over time of agreement on common elements of the formative assessment process.

The Evolution of Formative Assessment

Formative assessment has become a mainstay in educational discourse and practice. The first reference to the term “formative” has roots in curriculum development and evaluation. Cronbach 1963 refers to the idea of using evaluation as a tool for improving curricular programs. Scriven 1967 builds on Cronbach’s work in proposing the term “formative” as a way of clarifying the roles of evaluation. Bloom 1971 applies Scriven’s definition to the process of teaching and learning, by using the term to describe a way of improving student learning. Bloom, et al. 1971 links the idea of formative evaluation to the instructional approach of mastery learning as an instructional process that includes the use of data to improve both teaching and learning. During the 1980s and 1990s, educational researchers continued to expand on the ideas and theories proposed, and use of the term “formative evaluation” was replaced by the term “formative assessment.” Sadler 1989 builds on the definitions previously offered, highlighting the role of the student in the assessment process and viewing student self-assessment as critical to improved student learning. First published in 1994, Gipps 2012 documents the shift in how the educational community views assessment, including a shift from a psychometric view to the development of assessments and use of assessment data by teachers to guide instruction. The is distinguished as a classic text and it was thus reprinted in 2012. During the 1990s and the early 2000s, the Assessment Reform Group in the United Kingdom focused on the development of formative assessment practices and provided a definition of formative assessment. Written by Assessment Reform Group members, Harlen and James 1997 affirms that a distinction between formative and summative assessment is needed due to the confluence of these two roles of assessment in the field. The term “assessment for learning” was first coined in Assessment Reform Group 1999 to further delineate the differences between the goals and roles of summative and formative assessment and extended by the vision of assessment not only for learning but also of learning and as learning found in Earl 2003. Stiggins and Chappuis 2012 highlights the importance of assessment for learning and situates it as the key practice of classroom assessment.

  • Assessment Reform Group. 1999. Assessment for learning: Beyond the black box. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ., School of Education.

    In this text, the authors first coin the term “assessment for learning” to distinguish it from the more conventional and long-standing notion of “assessment of learning.” The purpose of assessment of learning is to verify student learning, whereas the purpose of assessment for learning is to contribute to the acquisition, or forming, of learning.

  • Bloom, B. S. 1971. Learning for mastery. In Handbook on formative and summative evaluation of student learning. Edited by B. S. Bloom, J. T. Hastings, and G. F. Madaus, 43–57. New York: McGraw-Hill.

    This book chapter connects the concept of mastery learning with formative evaluation. The author indicates that formative tests are used to gauge student learning, to diagnose difficulties, and to design interventions so that the student achieves mastery of a unit of instruction.

  • Bloom, B. S., J. T. Hastings, and G. F. Madaus. 1971. Formative evaluation. In Handbook on formative and summative evaluation of student learning. Edited by B. S. Bloom, J. T. Hastings, and G. F. Madaus, 117–138. New York: McGraw-Hill.

    A book chapter that builds on Scriven’s definition of formative evaluation in curriculum development and implementation. The authors apply this definition to planning, instructional delivery, and student learning, with guidance on how to create assessments and use assessment data.

  • Cronbach, L. J. 1963. Course improvement through evaluation. Teacher’s College Record 64.8: 672–683.

    In perhaps the earliest intimations of the concept of formative evaluation, Cronbach calls for an evaluation process that focuses on gathering and reporting information to use in guiding decisions in an educational program and in curriculum development while the program can be modified.

  • Earl, L.?M. 2003. Assessment as learning: Using classroom assessment to maximize student learning. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

    The author describes a vision for the future of assessment as being composed of assessment of,for, and as learning. Principles of assessment for learning are illustrated with examples from multiple subject areas and grade levels. Assessment as learning focuses on the role of students as active participants in their own learning, which the author describes as virtually absent from most classrooms at the time of publication of the text.

  • Gipps, C. V. 2012. Beyond testing: Towards a theory of educational assessment. Classic ed. London: Routledge.

    First published in 1994 in London by the Falmer publishing house, this book explores the evolution of how assessment is viewed. The author delineates the move from the psychometric view of assessment and a focus on testing to a classroom view of assessment that includes the development of a culture of assessment and a wider range of assessment tools and uses.

  • Harlen, W., and M. James. 1997. Assessment and learning: Differences and relationships between formative and summative assessment. Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice 4.3: 365–379.

    DOI: 10.1080/0969594970040304

    In this article, the authors focus on providing clarity on the differences between formative and summative assessment. In addition, the authors provide conditions by which formative assessments can be used for summative purposes. These conditions include the use of external criteria for assessing student learning, viewing the results of formative assessment holistically across a period of instruction, and ensuring inter-rater reliability across teachers.

  • Sadler, D. R. 1989. Formative assessment and the design of instructional systems. Instructional Science 18.2: 119–144.

    DOI: 10.1007/BF00117714

    In this article, Sadler focuses on the judgments made about the quality of student work, discussing not only who makes such judgments but also how they are made and used. He posits that students must be able to appraise their own work and draw on their own skills to make modifications to their learning, thus alluding to the intersection of formative and self-assessment. The importance of feedback is emphasized.

  • Scriven, M. 1967. The methodology of evaluation. In Perspectives of curriculum evaluation. Edited by R. W. Tyler, R. M. Gagné, and M. Scriven, 39–85. Rand McNally Education. Chicago: Rand McNally.

    In this monograph, Scriven proposes the use of the terms “formative” and “summative” to provide clarity about roles and goals within the evaluation community. The role of formative evaluation is to make improvements while the focus of the evaluation can still be improved. By comparison, summative evaluation is used to determine the merit or worth of an educational program.

  • Stiggins, R. J., and J. Chappuis. 2012. An introduction to student-involved assessment FOR learning. 6th ed. Boston: Pearson.

    This classic textbook on classroom assessment may be the earliest example of a text that uses assessment for learning as the organizing conceptual framework for the principles, strategies, and techniques that it presents. This textbook is written for pre-service teachers, and it accentuates the intentional involvement of students in gauging their own learning.

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