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Formative Assessment in Practice: A Process of Inquiry and Action

reviewed by Randall Davies - June 05, 2015

coverTitle: Formative Assessment in Practice: A Process of Inquiry and Action
Author(s): Margaret Heritage
Publisher: Harvard University Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 1612505511, Pages: 176, Year: 2013
Search for book at Amazon.com

For those of you who haven’t been paying attention, public schools in America are currently experiencing an educational crisis regarding the need for and proper uses of assessment. Some aspects of this assessment predicament are likely exaggerated—other facets of the issue, specifically the need for formative assessment—are real.

In her book, Formative Assessment in Practice: A process of inquiry and action, Margaret Heritage addresses the assessment problem from both a practical and a scholarly perspective. For those interested in the practical aspects of assessment, Heritage provides a comprehensive approach to personalizing student learning using formative assessment. She politely refrains from directly stating that of these two fundamental purposes for assessment, formative evaluation is by far the most important, and that implementing the strategies she presents in this book will improve education more than summative assessments (focused on accountability or certification) ever will. For those interested in gaining a more scholarly understanding of assessment, Heritage explains the theory behind formative assessment (i.e., why it works) and offers compelling reasons why responsible educators ought to employ it, as well as why policy makers ought to support it.

Heritage bases her exploration of assessment theory on a child’s rights approach to assessment. She then supplements this with an explanation of basic principles of learning and the role formative assessment ought to play in the teaching and learning process. Heritage explains that assessment has two fundamental purposes: to provide information about student achievement (what Heritage calls a past-to-present focus), and to identify future possibilities and learning opportunities (a present-to-future perspective).

It is the second purpose—obtaining and using evidence of learning through formative assessment—that this book addresses. If I had a complaint about the book on this point, it might be that the author diplomatically avoids pointing out that much of the presumed educational crisis we face today is largely due to the fact that we focus too much on testing for the purpose of describing students’ past achievement. I would point out (as the author does) that this book is not about tests and testing, rather it provides a set of practices and principles that research has found to be effective for improving the learning of individual students. Heritage’s goal to personalize learning—what she describes as fostering a student’s ability to learn independently—is accomplished by implementing an approach to education that involves developing a community of practice within the context of the classroom.

A community of practice requires that students and teachers establish a working relationship based on a common desire to learn. Learning progress in such a community is monitored and informed through formative assessments. Students and teachers then interpret and use this evidence to inform future possibilities. It is the actionable information provided by formative assessments that fuels an effective community of practice. Heritage points out that actionable information based on evidence provided through formative assessment may help teachers adjust their instruction, and it should help students adjust their learning efforts and focus.

Throughout her book, Heritage provides examples and practical guidelines for using formative assessment with academic, theory-based underpinnings. She explores these practices and insights from an international perspective. For me personally, Heritage’s observations about assessment theory and her call to refocus assessment practices are insightful. As she explains in the final chapter of the book, we as a society need to recommit and return to developing a learning culture in schools, moving away from the testing culture that currently prevails in the United States and many other countries. This book would definitely be a valuable resource for educational practitioners and policymakers who wish to improve learning for individual students in schools.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: June 05, 2015
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17984, Date Accessed: 10/21/2021 8:11:41 PM

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About the Author
  • Randall Davies
    Brigham Young University
    E-mail Author
    RANDALL DAVIES, PhD is an assistant professor in the Instructional Psychology and Technology department at Brigham Young University. His areas of expertise include program evaluation and assessment practices. His research focuses on exploring the potential of adaptive technology-enabled instructional systems to improve learning using educational data mining and learning analytics.
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