The Importance of Classroom Assessment
Wilson, M. (2016, June). NCME Newsletter, 24(2), 2-3.
As professionals involved in measurement in education, we mainly focus on the development and use of various forms of tests and assessments. Much of the funding that is used to develop such tests comes, ultimately, from the decisions of policy makers in education, principally leaders of state and federal bodies charged with administering education, but also administrators at other levels of education, not to mention the many boards, committees, and organizations that also seek to influence education. This leads inevitably to the major focus of our work being from a top-down perspective, at the behest, and for the purposes of, such policy makers and administrators. This is entirely appropriate, as these are the persons and bodies that are crucial large-scale decision makers in our educational endeavors.
However, there is an alternate way to perceive the educational enterprise—from the bottom up. From this perspective, educational measurement’s core activity is the help in the educational progress of each student as they learn. And the agents immediately involved in that are the student and the teacher. From this perspective, the most salient moments in student learning are being orchestrated by a teacher-student pair, and that is where one might expect that the most important decisions about student learning will be made, and where the greatest impact takes place.
Before pursuing this further, it is important to define some terms. Although I have used classroom assessment above, in fact in the literature it is most often referred to now as formative assessment. The definition adopted here is as follows:
An assessment activity is formative if it can help learning by providing information to be used as feedback, by teachers, and by their students, in assessing themselves and each other, to modify the teaching and learning activities in which they are engaged. (Black, Wilson, & Yao, 2011)
It is important to note that it is not the material itself of the assessment that is crucial, but instead it is the use to which it is put. A similar definition can then be made for summative assessment:
An assessment activity is summative insofar as it is being used to provide a summary of what a student knows, understands, or can do, and not to help by providing feedback to modify the teaching and learning activities in which the student is engaged.
This summary could be used for decisions such as promotion, attainment of a set of standards, graduation, or admission to the next level of schooling. Again, note that it is the use of the assessment that is the distinguishing feature here—in fact, a specific assessment could be used in both ways under different circumstances.
The observation above about the salience of formative assessment in education is not just an idle observation, but has been well-established by a number of very broad research syntheses (Crooks, 1988; Natriello, 1987), reaching a peak in the seminal work by Black and Wiliam (1998a, 1998b), which detailed multiple types of formative assessment that have been found effective and multiple modes of feedback that affect student learning. They found effect sizes (ES) for formative assessment between 0.4 and 0.7, and the establishment of similar results continues to this day. For example, working in the area of writing assessment, Graham, Hebert and Harris (2015) found that, overall, formative assessments gave an average standardized ES of .63, with results for specific forms of feedback including an ES of .87 for adult feedback (including teacher feedback), .58 for peer feedback, .62 for self-assessment, and .38 for computer feedback.
Clearly, then, the topic of classroom assessment is indeed crucial for the entire educational enterprise and should be seen as the most likely pathway for educational measurement to make a positive and central contribution to education.