May 28, 2015

By Gene Kerns

Not too many years ago, we fought some “wars” in our profession, and we may be on the verge of yet another. It started with the “Reading Wars” of Whole Language vs. Phonics. Then, we fought the “Math Wars” of computational and procedural understandings of mathematics vs. application and problem solving. Now we find ourselves at least having “skirmishes” about what constitutes high quality formative assessment.

As is typical in such situations, people are polarized. There are some who see a complete solution for formative assessment in the suite of formative tools provided by either of the two main assessment consortia or professionally designed tests like Renaissance Star Reading® or Renaissance Star Math® or similar offerings from other companies. In response to these folks, Dr. Margaret Heritage of the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing claims that “the two consortia lack ‘the right mind-set’ because they depict formative assessment as sets of tools, or ‘mini-summative’ tests” (Gewertz, 2012).

Then, there are folks so fixated on the use of quality formative assessment strategies at the classroom level that they cannot tolerate the use of the word “formative” in association with professionally designed tests. They cite Heritage’s comment that formative assessment should be a “continuous process embedded in adults’ teaching and students’ learning” (Heritage in Gewertz, 2012).

We need both, in balance

I have presented and worked with Dr. Heritage on multiple occasions and, if you will indulge me, I would like to clear up some misunderstandings with this revision of her statement: Formative assessment is a multi-level process embedded in adults’ teaching and students’ learning involving a variety of tools and strategies varying in design and use.

Often, our conversations about “formative assessment” become muddled due to the fact that the field of formative assessment is huge. Vendors can provide highly reliable and valid assessments that have gone through a rigorous design process and can be used formatively. And teachers might be told in a training that they should pause during lessons to have students rate their level of understanding using thumbs up / thumbs down. This, too, is labeled “formative assessment.”  How can two tools that are so very different both be labeled “formative assessment”?

At the summer assessment conference of the Confederation of Oklahoma School Administrators, Derek Brown, Director of Assessment for the State of Oregon, framed it well. He noted that we need teachers to focus on the ongoing use of high quality formative classroom assessment strategies, but we also need regular opportunities for teachers to look up from their daily work and gauge their progress by administering high quality, professionally designed assessments with documented reliability. These he referred to as interim assessments, a category within formative. Dr. Brown’s comments reveal that reliable and valid, nationally normed assessments offering some broad comparability are essential and key elements of schools’ overall assessment systems.

The key to big gains—classroom strategies

Assuming, then, that one accepts this call to view formative assessment in a more balanced way—to envision the multi-level process involving a variety of tools and strategies varying in design and use—is the problem solved? Or is our work just begun.

Given the recent emphasis on assessments as accountability tools, few teachers have heard of the landmark Inside the Black Box, a meta-analysis of classroom strategies by Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam in 1998. By my measure, this is one of the most meaningful works of our generation, but few practitioners realize the incredible findings that “students taught by teachers who integrated assessment with instruction could achieve in six or seven months what would otherwise take a year” (Black and Wiliam, 1998).

We talk a lot about “closing achievement gaps” and “increasing performance,” and Black and Wiliam’s findings are a solution right before us. As Wiliam (2011) notes, “substantial increases in student achievement—of the order of 70 to 80 percent increase in the speed of learning—are possible, even when outcomes are measured with externally mandated standardized tests” and  “the currently available evidence suggests that there is nothing else remotely affordable that is likely to have such a large effect.”

A call to broaden our view

The challenge is, while we fight assessment skirmishes that focus just on the aspects of standardized tools, we miss the bigger issue of connecting those tools directly to the teacher’s daily work in the classroom. As Rick Stiggins notes, “Because that standardized testing light has been so brilliant in our eyes, we haven’t seen past it to another application of assessment in schools that promises even greater impact on student learning. This is the classroom level of assessment. We have neglected to put into place day-to-day classroom assessment practices that set both teachers and students up for success, and that’s a crisis” (Assessment Training Institute, 2003).


Assessment Training Institute. (2003). Assessment for learning: A hopeful vision of the future [Motion picture]. (Available from the Assessment Training Institute, Portland, OR)

Black, P., & Wiliam, D. (1998). Inside the black box: Raising standards through classroom assessment. Phi Delta Kappan, 80(2), 139–148.
Gewertz, C. (2012, March 23). Expert Issues Warning on Formative-Assessment Uses. Education Week. Retrieved March 24, 2015, from

Wiliam, D. (2011). Embedded formative assessment. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.

, and for us to envision formative assessment in a balanced way that makes room for multiple levels and a variety of tools. Click the button below to explore the power of Renaissance Star 360®.