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Checking for Understanding of Formative Assessment

My story last week on formative assessment prompted a reader to pose a question about how it relates to the concept of "mastery learning" as he was practicing it in his classroom. Intrigued, I asked Margaret Heritage, the author of the report I wrote about, to share her thoughts in response. The question-and-answer offer an interesting glimpse into the field's attempts to clarify the idea—and practice—of formative assessment as the two big state assessment consortia move into designing tests for the new common standards.

Those of you who missed my story on formative assessment can catch up here (the story links directly to the study, which you should check out, too). And you might also want to read the blog item I posted about it as well, with more from the discussion about Heritage's report.

The reader (whose question you can see in the comments section here, along with other comments), asked about the practice of "mastery learning" and formative assessment:

I used that delivery system in my classroom and it involves formative and summative tests. The formative tests are given at the end of each major lesson, to measure the level of understanding of students. Those who pass the formative test move on to an enrichment lesson. Those who do not reach the "mastery" level (in my class 80% proficiency) move into additional work to qualify to retake the formative test on that lesson. No student may take a summative test on a unit without having "mastered" all of the formative tests/quizzes leading up to the summative test.


Furthermore, no student may have credit for the course work without having taken all summative tests. The formative tests/quizzes are constructed around the content of the lesson, making sure the feedback sought is actually presented in the lessons, the whole alignment thing. Work required in the remedial phase must cover the same material, but be of a different sort of learning task. Am I properly interpreting "formative" tests/quizzes?

Here is Heritage's response:

I have a different perspective on formative assessment from the mastery learning one you write about here. In the way you describe the tests, I regard them as summative classroom assessments. They are given to the students to see if they have mastered the learning objectives.


You indicate that students can pass them or retake them after a remediation phase. From my perspective, formative assessment is not about remediation. In a sense, formative assessment is the antidote to remediation. Formative assessment takes place while the learning is evolving, during the course of instruction. Using a variety of means teachers collect evidence of student learning so they are able to respond to student needs.

The whole idea of formative assessment is that the teachers keep a close eye on student's learning as it is emerging so they can make necessary instructional adjustments to keep student learning moving forward to meet the learning goal of the lesson (or if no adjustments are necessary based on the evidence they have obtained, they keep going with the lesson as planned).

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