Why hasn’t formative assessment had the impact it promised?

Despite the wealth of research into and exemplification of good formative assessment practices, Booth (2017), in his article for England’s Chartered College of Teaching, cites some of the key reasons why, in England, formative assessment has not had the impact in schools it had promised.

First, we need to consider the definition issue. As the Assessment Reform Group have stated:

The term “formative” itself is open to a variety of interpretations and often means no more than that assessment is carried out frequently and is planned at the same time as teaching. It may be formative in helping the teacher identify areas where more explanation or practice is needed. But for the pupils, the marks or remarks in their work may tell them about their successes or failures but not how to make progress towards future learning (1999: 7).  

This point is particularly exemplified by Dylan Wiliam who, in an interview published in England’s Times Educational Supplement magazine, commented ‘the big mistake that Paul and I made was calling this stuff “assessment” … because when you use the word assessment, people think about tests and exams’ (Stewart, 2012). 

Secondly, the concept of feedback requires some thinking. For example, in many schools, it is common for teachers to give students a mark, level, or grade with comments to improve. This idea has been widely researched, along with other modalities of feedback. The first pioneering study into the area was conducted by Butler (1988) who, in her oft-cited article, looked into the effects of different types of feedback on students in Israel between two lessons. The following key findings were reported: 

  • students who were given marks only made no gain in attainment between the two lessons,

  • students who were given comments only improved, on average, by 30% compared to their previous performance, and

  • students who were given marks and comments made, surprisingly, no gain. 

This is an important consideration for teachers and school policy makers because, whilst the idea of giving marks and comments to improve might appear favourable, what seems likely to happen in practice is that students look at their score, compare it with the person nearest to them, and ignore the comments. As such, the efforts of the teacher, having spent time writing the comments, is largely wasted.

A third reason relates to Fautley and Savage’s (2008) acknowledgement that, in some English schools, there is often pressure on teachers (and students), presumably by their senior leadership teams, to produce high levels of attainment in the form of marks or grades from assessments. With this in mind, we need to consider the fact that teachers may consciously be neglecting their formative practices and beliefs in favour of frequent summative assessments, some albeit mini ones, to meet requests for data tracking purposes.

Bearing these practices in mind, England´s Department for Education found that ‘formative assessment was not always being used as an integral part of effective teaching’ (DfE, 2015: 13) and that ‘[i]nstead of using classroom assessment to identify strengths and gaps in pupils’ knowledge and understanding of the programmes of study, some teachers were simply tracking pupils’ progress towards target levels’ (DfE, 2015: 13).