When I tell non-educators I've edited a book on formative assessment, they look blank. Yes, I admit "formative assessment" sounds like education-speak.
Formative assessment is the practice of dipping in to find out what students understand and can do during the process of instruction instead of just at the end of a unit. The point is to try and figure out where the students are when there's still time to do something about it.
Of course, teachers check for understanding all the time by asking questions in class or just by glancing around to see who looks confused. Anyone who teaches one-on-one, say for example a parent teaching a child to read or do the multiplication tables, also constantly monitors what the child already knows. That way the parent can select the logical next step in instruction. Maybe formative assessment is one reason why one-on-one learning is so efficient.
Doing formative assessment with a whole class of students at once, though, is more difficult, and that's where the need for tools comes in. Tools can range from suggested in-class assignments and ways of scoring them to computer programs that track student moves in responding to a question placed right within a text. Teachers can find out who in the class is totally lost, who just needs a hint to get back on track, and who is ready to go on to something more challenging.
New Frontiers in Formative Assessment profiles ten ongoing projects that have worked to make formative assessment a thoughtful part of teaching in the content areas of mathematics, science, and language arts. The chapters address how to decide what to assess, how to assess during instruction instead of as an interruption, and perhaps most difficult, what moves a teacher should make as a result of what he or she finds out. It's meant to be helpful to teachers, curriculum developers, administrators and teacher educators. But I thought I'd at least explain the general notion to the rest of you.