Formative assessment practice commonly takes three distinct forms, which can be thought of as a continuum (Figure 9-1). It can be on the fly, in which instruction goes a step beyond traditional classroom interactions; it becomes a method of genuine probing for understanding, rather than simply checking and evaluating the state of students’ understanding (White and Gunstone, 1992). This point is especially relevant in the context of science education, in which teachers of scientific inquiry need to continuously elicit student thinking and help students consider their developing conceptions on the basis of scientific evidence. In planned-for formative assessment, ongoing formative assessment occurs in a learning environment that helps teachers acquire information on a continuing and informal basis, such as in the course of daily classroom talk. This type of classroom talk has been called an assessment conversation (Duschl and Gitomer, 1997; Duschl, 2003) or an instructional dialogue that embeds assessment into an activity already occurring in the classroom. When planned deliberately, assessment conversations become an example of planned-for assessment. Assessment conversations permit teachers to recognize students’ conceptions, mental models, strategies, language use, or communication skills and allow them to use this information to guide instruction. A third type of formative assessment is referred to as “curriculum-embedded.” This occurs when specific assessments are used in a curricular system at the school or school system level. We acknowledge curriculum-embedded formative assessment now as one type of formative assessment, and we discuss it in Chapter 10 as a feature of coherent instructional systems.

Formative Assessment and Student Learning

Research on the effectiveness of formative assessment across many school subjects suggests compelling results. In an extensive review of the literature that included more than 250 articles, Black and Wiliam (1998a) placed the effect size for learning gains in interventions involving aspects of formative assessment between 0.4 and 0.7.3 These gains are observed across student achievement levels, with the highest gains for lower achieving students. Despite these encouraging findings, Black and Wiliam also found that few strong, empirical studies on formative assessment existed, and they found only one such study (White and Fredericksen, 1998) in the context of K-8 science.4

In that study, White and Frederiksen (1998) explored how peer and self-assessment could help to build students’ understanding of scientific inquiry.


Effect size derived only from studies with pre- and postmeasures of student learning.


The only other science-specific controlled studies of formative assessment were in the context of instructional systems with embedded formative measures. Those studies are discussed in Chapter 10 under instructional systems.

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