Behind Hewlett's Grant for Formative Assessments

News that a K-12 education funder has just awarded a grant to develop and scale new assessments will, more likely than not, elicit groans of “ugh, more testing.” But don’t organize that anti-testing rally just yet, because this is for a different type of testingone that is used to shape classroom instruction and student learning.

Hewlett Foundation awarded WestEd, a California-based education research and development firm, $500,000 to develop and scale formative assessments. Formative assessments differ from the standardized summative testing that has dominated the K-12 landscape for the last 25 years. While the latter has become a tool for gauging what students have learned and, increasingly, for grading the performance of schools themselves, formative assessments are designed to help teachers guide classroom instruction by providing details of what skills and concepts students hold, as well as which ones should be retaught and reinforced.

Standardized testing has been a part of K-12 education since the 1980s, and became more prevalent since the passage of “No Child Left Behind” in 2001. The adoption of the Common Core standards ushered in more rigorous assessments, designed to measure students’ readiness for college and careers. The emphasis on testing has sparked a backlash in some states. Critics, including many parents, complain that taking and preparing for tests consume too much time and that the tests themselves emphasize basic skills and rote memorization at the expense of higher thinking skills.

Informing classroom instruction as a means of promoting student learning is what separates formative assessment from standardized summative tests. With the funding from Hewlett, WestEd plans to develop and scale formative assessments that will yield data for teachers on evidence of students’ grasp of competencies that can then be used to improve student learning. The formative instruments will emphasize the deeper, more rigorous academic skills promoted by today’s higher K-12 standards. The research firm will conduct this work in a network of states promoting the use of formative assessment and college- and career-ready standards.

This grant is consistent with Hewlett’s larger goal of building teachers’ capacities to use effective assessment programs that support deeper learning. WestEd has provided much of the data, research and brain power in support of this goal, as the organization has received many previous grants from the funder. In 2014 alone, WestEd received $2 million in Hewlett Foundation funding, including the $500,000 received for this project. Previous grants in 2014 also related to new student assessments in the wake of the Common Core standards.