for all students, so that high standards may be achieved (Black and Wiliam, 1998a). Formative assessment is critical to teachers’ ability to plan for, support, and assess the quality of students’ experiences learning science as practice.
Teachers have the most direct access to information about student learning and are thus in a position to interpret and use it to provide them with timely feedback (Shepard, 2003; Wilson, 2005). Teachers can also use the information to monitor the effectiveness of their own teaching (National Research Council, 2001); however, formative assessment also involves students, since they need to recognize, evaluate, and react to their own learning and others’ assessments of their learning (Bell and Cowie, 2001; Sadler, 1989).
Assessment becomes formative in nature—informing teaching and learning—only when the teacher uses that information to adapt instruction, or the student uses the information to influence his or her learning, or both (Black, 1998). For example, a teacher asking a planned sequence of questions might find out that students had not understood the concept to be learned in a particular lesson, and as a result the teacher might use that information to modify the subsequent lesson to reinforce the prior learning goal. In another situation, a student comparing his or her own work with an exemplar shown by the teacher might make modifications on the basis of reaching the goal made explicit in the form of the exemplar. Therefore, whether assessment is formative hinges on a criterion of use; that is, assessment can be considered formative when information is used to take action to advance students toward learning goals (Bell and Cowie, 2001; Black and Wiliam, 1998a; Shavelson et al., 2003).
Formative assessment can be summarized in three central questions to be answered by the student or the teacher: Where are you going? Where are you now? How are you going to get there? (National Research Council, 2001). This three-step process summarizes what has been called the “feedback loop” in formative assessment: setting a learning goal, determining the gap between the learning goal and the student’s present state of understanding, and formulating feedback to close the gap.