Education Formative Assessment
Leslie W. Grant, Christopher R. Gareis, Sarah P. Hylton
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 July 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 April 2014
  • 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. Significant contributions to this evolution have been made by researchers in the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand. Specifically, 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. This article provides an overview of the evolution of the concept of formative assessment and includes research related to the effects of formative assessment practices and the connections between the theory and practice of formative assessment. One conclusion drawn from this review of the literature is that theories, practices, and professional development approaches vary across researchers, and this variance has contributed to some confusion in the field about what exactly formative assessment is.

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 by 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 continue to expand on the ideas and theories proposed, and use of the term “formative evaluation” was replaced by the term “formative assessment.” Sadler 1989 proposes a theory of formative assessment that builds on the definitions previously offered, but it highlights the role of the student in the assessment process and views student self-assessment as critical to improved student learning. 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. During the 1990s and the early 21st century, the Assessment Reform Group in the United Kingdom focused on the development of formative assessment practices and providing a definition of formative assessment. Assessment Reform Group members Wynne Harlen and Mary James (Harlen and James 1997) believed that a distinction between formative and summative assessment was 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. Black and Wiliam 2009 offers a definition of formative assessment that is based on over ten years of work with the Assessment Reform Group. While the term has evolved over time, definitions vary in the literature.

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

    A text in which 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 of learning—its forming.

  • Black, P., and D. Wiliam. 2009. Developing the theory of formative assessment. Educational Assessment, Evaluation and Accountability 21.1: 5–31.

    DOI: 10.1007/s11092-008-9068-5

    An article that builds on previous work to refine a theory of formative assessment and its development over time. The authors provide a definition of formative assessment that focuses on assessment data collection, interpreters and users of assessment data, and decisions made based on assessment data.

  • 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.

    A book chapter that connects 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 and applies 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.

    One of 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.

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

    First published in 1994 (London: Falmer). A book exploring 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 a wider range of assessment tools and uses and the development of a culture of assessment.

  • 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

    An article focused 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

    An article acknowledging the theory of formative assessment. However, the author builds on this theory by focusing on the importance of feedback in the process of formative assessment. In addition, the author posits that students must be able to appraise their own work and draw on their own skills to make modifications to their learning.

  • 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.

    A monograph that 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 be improved. By comparison, summative evaluation is used to determine merit or worth.

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