E-Learning | Viewpoint

Formative Assessment Is Foundational to Blended Learning

In the eighth installment of their monthly column, blended learning experts Michael B. Horn and Heather Staker cite innovative examples of schools utilizing formative assessment software in blended learning programs to develop a personalized experience for students.

Formative assessment began long before blended learning. Teachers have used formative assessment for decades as a method to get feedback about how students are progressing in their learning (see education.com). But formative assessment is particularly in the spotlight now because it features so prominently in emerging blended learning programs. In fact, it's hard to imagine effective blended learning without strong formative assessment at its foundation.

What is 'Formative Assessment?'
In contrast to summative assessment, which occurs at the end of a learning unit to determine what students have attained, formative assessment takes place throughout the learning process to fine-tune instruction and spot deficiencies. In addition, teachers have used it to help shape lesson plans, although the monolithic structure of the traditional classroom ties teachers' hands from being able to offer much by way of differentiated, personalized lessons in response to formative assessment results.

Blended learning, however, changes the equation. Now teachers can use software to offer countless different learning pathways to students in response to daily (even minute-by-minute) formative assessment. Stefanie Blouin of the Academy 21 blended learning prototype school in St. Albans, VT said that blended learning brings about an important shift. It used to be that both the what (the competencies) and the how (the pathways) of education were fixed. Blended learning makes the pathways flexible, however. That flexibility escalates the need for formative assessment, which can gauge student progress and then inform the choice of pathway forward.

Built-in Formative Assessment in Online Courses
In some cases, blended learning programs are using all-in-one software for formative assessment and for delivering adaptive content. Ephraim Weisstein, founder of Schools for the Future (SFF), writes that SFF-Detroit is using developmental reading (Achieve 3000) and developmental math (Think Through Math) software that has built-in formative assessment. Most of the largest online course providers, including Apex Learning, Aventa Learning (owned by K12 Inc.), and K12 Inc., integrate formative assessment into their online courses.

One important caution that Brian Bridges, the director of the California Learning Resource Network, has pointed out is that a surprising number of online courses do not try a different approach or even take students back to review when they perform poorly on a formative assessment. Those courses seem deficient in a fundamental way.

In contrast, Lexia Learning, an online reading program, integrates constant, ongoing assessment into its product in real time, which allows it to predict with nearly 90 percent accuracy a student's likelihood of reaching grade-level reading benchmarks within a student's first month on the product, which in turn allows it to prescribe an approach for a student so that he or she can course correct.

Third-party Formative Assessment
In other cases, blended learning programs are using third-party formative assessment. In "The rise of K12 blended learning" (p. 164), we list the most common assessment providers from among 40 blended learning operators nationwide. NWEA MAP assessments top the list, followed by a range of others, including Acuity and Pearson. One of the blended schools, Carpe Diem in Yuma, AZ, uses e2020's built-in assessments as well as Acuity's independent assessments to double check the effectiveness of e2020.

Regardless of whether it is built-in or third party, formative assessment software appears to work best in blended learning environments if it helps students direct their own learning. Tom Arnett from Amistad Academy Elementary School argued that the software ought to give students immediate, clear feedback via prominent display on the student-facing side of the software. The feedback needs to be quantitative so students can articulate personal learning goals.

As formative assessment providers develop such software, their efforts will be foundational to making blended learning a personalized experience for students.

About the Authors

Michael Horn is co-founder of Innosight Institute, a nonprofit think tank focused on education and innovation.

Heather Staker is a senior education research fellow at Innosight Institute.

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