Why are we still talking about formative assessment?

Sherry Bennett: Reflections after Two Decades of Learning with AAC

My first encounter with the Alberta Assessment Consortium was in 1999, when Robert Hogg, new to his role as AAC Executive Director, invited me to join the AAC summer development workshop. Through many conversations about this thing called ‘assessment for learning’, I gained insights about teaching and learning that I hadn’t even considered prior to that time.

The Black and Wiliam meta-analysis was only a year old, and what I didn’t know at the time, was that the work we were about was truly ground breaking. What I did know, was that it resonated with me. It made sense, and gave me a whole new outlook on my teaching career.

I was still in the classroom at that time, and had the opportunity to try out these new ideas – performance tasks, rubrics, criteria, feedback, exemplars – with real students. I also had the opportunity to explain these concepts to parents, and to celebrate student growth and learning during family/teacher conferences.

I’m the first to admit that my early assessment work was not very refined. Those non-examples that we use in the AAC workshops – some of them came from my files! One of the most important things that I learned during my personal assessment journey was the value of feedback. I was mentored by three truly great educators who helped me embrace feedback as the essence of learning for every learner – students and adults.

It was also the time of the AISI projects in Alberta, and the nature of the three-year funding cycle had the unintended consequence of assessment for learning taking on ‘initiative’ status. You would hear statements such as, “We did assessment last cycle. We’re doing differentiation now.” As if you could ever be done assessment..

So why are we still talking about formative assessment? With all of the work in Alberta over the past 27 years, why are we not there yet?


I think it would be erroneous to suggest that we haven’t made progress during the almost three decades AAC has been in existence. But I’m not sure that formative assessment is an end unto itself. It’s not a place where you arrive.

Sure – you can try to track the use of formative assessment through online gradebooks, staff surveys, instructional walk-throughs, and the like – but true formative assessment is something that needs to be embraced by each educator. It’s a belief in the worth of students –every student – and a commitment to do whatever it takes to help them learn.

It’s not about comparing kids with each other and creating winners and losers. And it’s not about being ‘soft’ on kids, or giving ‘participation ribbons’ as the naysayers claim.

It’s about helping students clearly see the learning destination, reflect candidly about where they are at the moment, and consider their next steps in their own learning journey. We help students learn to give and receive feedback, and to value those opportunities.

Ultimately, our job is to help develop confident, resilient, lifelong learners. We do this by creating an assessment environment where it really is OK to take risks, and where learning is what is valued. 

I think most educators value these things, but it’s hard not to get distracted with a new online reporting program or the latest published provincial school rankings. But we have to remember that the research base claiming the positive impact on student learning is within the realm of formative assessment – not summative. 

It’s interesting to note how closely our collective jurisdiction mission and vision statements mirror the ideas of formative assessment. We all talk about success for all students, but sometimes our focus on summative assessment and reporting clouds our vision. It doesn’t have to. 

So why are we still talking about formative assessment? Well frankly, because what else really matters?

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