In looking through our archives of newsletters, we were struck by how relevant many of our previous lead articles still are. We decided that once a year we will recycle an “oldie-but-goodie”. For this newsletter, we selected this highly relevant article from October 2011 by former Special Education School Improvement Specialist, Krista Promnitz, that reminds us of the power and purpose of formative assessments.

I walked into my Coordinator’s office to plan my professional development and she asked me, “What do you think you need to learn more about ?”  Despite the simplicity of the question, a quick answer was not at the ready.  After some thought, I said I would like to know more about how classroom teachers use assessments.  I have a background in standardized assessments, but the day-to-day assessment practices of a typical teacher were outside my experience.

As we talked, I decided to focus my year-long research project on the concept of formative assessment.  I found Transformative Assessment by W. James Popham (2008).  Several principals I visited said they owned the book, but had not read it.  One told me that if I thought it was worth the time, she would read it but that if it was another book with the same worn-out information it would stay on the shelf.  So, here’s a brief review of the ideas in the book that are helping to form my thinking on this complex topic.

In Transformative Assessment, Popham describes a multi-tiered approach to engaging students and faculty in daily assessments that are used to guide teaching and learning.  He defines formative assessment as a process “used by teachers and students during instruction that provides feedback to adjust ongoing teaching and learning to improve students’ achievement of intended instructional outcomes” (p. 5). Popham goes on to point out that formative assessment is a collaborative process that occurs during instruction, not outside or as an end result of instruction.

According to Popham, there are four levels of formative assessment:

Level 1: Teachers’ Instructional Adjustments: Teachers collect evidence by which they decide whether to adjust their current or immediately-upcoming instruction in order to improve the effectiveness of that instruction.

Level 2: Students’ Learning Tactics Adjustments: Students use evidence of their current skills-and-knowledge status to decide whether to adjust the procedures they are using in an effort to learn something. 

Level 3: Classroom Climate ShiftTeachers consistently apply formative assessment to the degree that its use transforms a traditional, comparison-dominated classroom, where the main purpose of assessment is to assign grades, into an atypical, learning-dominated classroom, where the main purpose of assessment is to improve the quality of teaching and learning.

Level 4: Schoolwide Implementation: An entire school (or district) adopts one or more levels of formative assessment, chiefly through the use of professional development and teacher learning communities.

There are many ways to collect this information, but according to Popham and other leading researchers on the topic, formative assessment results are not part of a student’s grades.  This is a major shift in thinking and it may present challenges with respect to classroom and school culture.  Popham provides multiple strategies for addressing this culture shift in his Level 3 discussion, including a sample survey to be completed by the students (pgs. 106-107).

As I work on this book review, I am reflecting on a conference session that I attended this morning with Dr. Douglas Reeves (respected Harvard researcher and author) where he addressed the essential nature of using formative assessments to improve student achievement.  He discussed extensively the need to provide professional development to teachers and administrators on sustainable change through good practice, not purchased products.  Specifically, he referenced the concept of formative assessment as a way to intervene early in the learning process for struggling students.  Dr. Reeves also spoke on the need to create student accountability and a sense of ownership over their learning processes.  His lecture was fascinating and current.  A participant asked him for a book recommendation that addressed these topics and his response was “Transformative Assessment” by W. James Popham.  If this book is sitting on your shelf, I encourage you to pick it up, dust it off and read it.”  I second his recommendation.  It just may change the way you and your teaching faculty think of classroom assessments.


Popham, W.J. (2011) Transformative assessment in action:  An inside look at applying the process. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.