This Is Not A Test.

Greetings Blogosphere!

I’m a huge fan of Jim Popham, though I have only met him twice and have never had the good fortune of working with him. I have worked with people who know him well, and kept hearing, “Jim Popham this and Jim Popham that…” related to changing the way we asses kids. Dr. Popham is Emeritus Professor in the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies and quite possibly the most engaging personality in the field of assessment.

Tonight, I read an article by Dr. Popham (A Process—Not a Test) that is in the April edition of Educational Leadership. I’ll get to that here in a second, but let me digress for a moment and share my tale of meeting Dr. Popham for the first time. Each year for Fathers’ Day, most of us assessment nerds gather in some steaming hot locale for a week of lectures on psychometrics, accessibility, and other assessment nerdery. In 2007, Nashville hosted the event. One afternoon, there was a big shindig on the General Jackson. (That’s a big paddle boat in Nashville, for those who’re unfamiliar.) Well, there I was at the little buffet area, and looked across the hors d’oeuvres and saw a name tag that read, “Jim Popham.” I was trying to get up the nerve to speak when he pointed at the chafing dish between us and asked, “What do you reckon that is?” or something a little less southern… So I said in response, “I’m not sure what it is, I’m having trouble concentrating on the food because Jim Popham is standing across from me.” Apparently this was a good response, because the rest of the time I was at the Large Scale Assessment Conference, Dr. Popham would speak to me when he saw me! (OK… back to the article.)

So ALL of that is to just to tell you that I have a new definition for formative assessment. I hope you’ll adopt it as well. Dr. Popham says, “Formative assessment is not a test. Rather, it is an ongoing process in which teachers use test-elicited evidence to adjust their instruction or students use it to adjust their learning tactics.”

So, those of us who give weekly spelling tests and think they are formative, need to consider the process. If a student fails the spelling test this week, are we adjusting our instruction next week or just moving on to a new list and doing the same type of lessons? Or, are we looking at the types of mistakes made and reteaching, adjusting, and retesting? *This doesn’t just apply to spelling tests, btw.

Are you using teacher-made or classroom level tests/activities to make adjustments to your instruction? Can you adopt Dr. Popham’s definition of formative assessment in your school or classroom? This is not a test. This is a process.

Your friendly assessment nerd, Porter



  1. Donna Neblett said:

    Here, here, Nerd Porter. This is the best description/explanation for formative assessment I have heard. When will all educators embrace it?

  2. Janell Hoffecker said:

    Excellent definition of formative assessments! Unfortunately there are too many teachers who focus just on test results. The four crucial steps seem fairly easy and simple so why aren’t more educators engaging in this description of formative assessment?

  3. Porter Palmer said:

    Hi Janell, Thanks for your comment! Having recently started this blog, I found myself looking for assessment resources directed at teachers. There are things out there, but really one must go looking to find them. I wonder if teachers just aren’t getting enough access to professional development in the area of assessment… I’m going to try to change that here 🙂

  4. Tom said:

    I agree assessment should be a process but so should learning. How much should we adjust teaching as opposed to teaching the coping skills needed to learn in new ways? We can all agree that teaching to the test is the wrong approach, but what about teaching to the learner? If we continually adjust our teaching to each individual student, they will never develop other capacities of learning.

  5. Sarah Stanley said:

    You’ll find alot of information regarding assessment on The Learning Community website. Because this website focuses on parenting, you’ll find the information written just for parents. (Use “testing” in the website search bar.) The contributor? Jim Popham.

  6. Cynthia said:

    Thank you for the information, Porter. The definition of formative assessment as a “process” to inform us of student learning is powerful. Using formative assessment allows us to modify our instruction to better meet students’ needs, and the step by step process described is useful. A challenge to this is that sometimes the district and state mandated curriculum inhibits a teacher from continually modifying and re-teaching every challenging concept. Sometimes students need to problem solve or seek extra help on their own if we want authentic learning to occur.

  7. Stephanie Kuhn said:

    I think that Dr. Popham has an amazing dfinition for formative assessment and if teachers would use this definition, students may find more success in learning. For example, with the spelling test example, if you revisit mistakes, then students can actually identify what they did wrong and why it should be different. Using assessment to drive and adjust your instruction is a great use of assessment and is more meaningful than getting a grade for the report card.

  8. Crystal Barthold said:

    I love this definition of assessment. It seems like these days all we are focused on are test scores and analyzing data. As a teacher I feel rushed to get through all of the content and then still have the students score well on common assessments. Nevermind the fact that I am not a big fan of common assessments. They are only used so that you can compare students when in reality we need to be looking for progress in students. I think that it is so much more to spend the time to make sure that students are understanding the information rather than just worrying about getting good grades on tests.

  9. Pam Oliveira said:

    Thanks for sharing this article, Porter. I think it is important to remember that this process involves the teachers being able to readjust teaching methods AS WELL AS the students having the chance to adjust their learning methods – studying more, using peer groups, asking questions, etc. It is true that so many teachers are focused on test scores and presenting information that will appear on the standardized tests just to claim they covered it. We need to give our students a chance to absorb the information and “own it” before we march ahead. I agree with your point that there is not a lot of professional development on assessment – or maybe too many teachers are stuck in on old pattern that is no longer working.

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