Reconceptualizing “formative assessment”

For decades, formative assessment was popularly defined as “any assessment done before the end of a course”. Even last year, at the BC TEAL Conference, this definition was provided by a presenter in passing during her seminar.

However, this definition has little pedagogical usefulness to teachers because many types of assessment can be administered either before or during a course, and for a variety of purposes: placement and general proficiency tests help teachers and program directors understand students’ incoming proficiency and can be used for placing students in multilevel programs; diagnostic tests can identify weaknesses which can be addressed through special learning assistance or for revising course plans. Unit tests inform both teachers and students of progress and need for review if necessary. Such means and purposes render the traditional meaning of traditional assessment to be far too vague.

Brown and Abeywickrama (2010) provide a far more useful definition:

“evaluating students in the process of developing their competencies and skills with the goal of helping them continue that growth process”

This is a definition that not only blends well with developmental psychology but also provides teachers with a both a short and long term view of assessment. It challenges us to consider not only the immediate but also the future effects of our current practices.


Source: Brown, H. D., & Abeywickrama, P. (2010). Language assessment: Principles and classroom practices (2ndEd.). White Plains, NY: Pearson ELT.

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