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by Laura Greenstein
Table of Contents
I sometimes start a workshop by asking teachers to think back to their own student days and their worst assessment experience. Everyone has a story.
I've heard about tests that had nothing to do with the assigned text or the instruction. I've also heard of teachers telling students about to begin a test that they were expected to fail it. The story I often share is about my first economics class at the University of Connecticut. Having no experience with the subject and finding that the classroom lectures didn't provide much illumination, I decided my best chance to pass the test was simply to memorize portions of the text and repeat them verbatim as my answers. When the professor called me into his office to accuse me of plagiarism, I explained my predicament and, fortunately, we were both able to laugh about it. I then received some extra help in understanding economic theories and statistics. So while this was my worst test experience, it was also my first taste of the effectiveness of formative assessment, although it would be many years before I came to understand it as such.
The word assessment comes from the Latin root assidere, which means “to sit beside another.” Our best assessment experiences are usually the ones that reflect the word's roots most closely; they are the times a teacher sits beside us to gather information about our progress and support our learning. The best assessments help us move forward. When my college economics professor and I finally sat side by side, he was able to understand what I did and did not know, and we were able to plan the next step together. That is formative assessment: the process of uncovering and understanding what students know in order to determine the best path to learning.
The traditional way to gather information about student learning is through summative assessment—a test, sometimes teacher-generated, sometimes common across classrooms and content areas, and sometimes standardized, given at the end of instruction for the purpose of measuring achievement. As teachers, we typically use the information from our tests to assign a grade and then move on to the next unit of instruction. As administrators and policymakers, we often use scores from standardized assessments to rank our school's or district's or state's achievement. These measures are valuable. They tell us where students have placed in the race, giving us a snapshot for comparative purposes. At this point, however, the race is over. In contrast, formative assessment gives teachers information that they can use to inform their teaching and improve learning while it is in progress and while the outcome of the race can still be influenced.
Formative assessment encompasses a variety of strategies for revealing students' understanding, allowing teachers to pinpoint and address any impediments to a student's progress. The process is much like a coach setting short exercises to assess a runner's stride, speed, and equipment and then making appropriate adjustments so that the runner can improve. Teachers use formative data to decide how much and what kind of learning, support, and practice a student needs to reach the goal. When formative assessment is employed before, during, and after instruction, both teachers and students have a measure of progress.
Achievement needs to be viewed not as a test-based number but as measurable growth over time. In this context, achievement means that students are working to improve their knowledge and skills. Different students will undertake this in different ways—perhaps some taking smaller steps than others—but progress is being made nonetheless. To go back to our race analogy, runners evaluate their achievement not only by where they place in the final standings but also by how much their individual performance has improved. Formative assessment allows both teachers and students to measure learning by inches, ounces, and degrees. The results can inform teacher and student decisions about what to do next on an hour-to-hour, day-to-day, or month-to-month basis.
Meet Ernesto and Mei, students in the same 9th grade pre-algebra class. Ernesto failed math in 8th grade but was promoted due to the district's policy of not retaining students. Because of budget cuts, summer school classes were not funded at his school, and his parents didn't have the resources to pay for him to be tutored elsewhere. So Ernesto is entering grade 9 as the same genial but disengaged student he has become over many years. He has found that being the class clown is an effective way to distract teachers from their work and from truly knowing his abilities.
Mei's family immigrated to this country a few years ago. She has been a reluctant learner of English, and her family and neighbors mostly speak her native language. As a student, she is well behaved, respectful, and cooperative. Her comprehension is sufficient for her to get by, but she is constrained in speaking because her verbal fluency and clarity are still limited. Intellectually, Mei is ready to study algebra, but the 8th grade teachers decided that she needed to work on her language skills in order to be successful with word problems and applying mathematical concepts.
A traditional classroom experience. Let's begin this case study comparison by imagining Ernesto and Mei in a traditional classroom. On the first day of school, their teacher, Ms. Blankenship, assigns them seats in alphabetical order and hands out a syllabus that includes topics and assignments related to the course goal: Students will demonstrate understanding of algebra by using algebraic symbols and variables; by simplifying algebraic expressions; by solving and graphing inequalities; and by evaluating, solving, and graphing linear and quadratic equations. As the weeks pass, Ernesto, Mei, and their classmates all listen to the same daily lectures and receive the same homework assignments. They are all tested at the same time with the same assessments. Grades are based on an average of all summative test scores.
Mei does well with the numerical problems but has trouble with the word problems; her grades are average, and she is quiet and fairly disengaged in class. Ernesto has difficulty understanding many of the ideas in the textbook and is often baffled by the homework assignments, which he rarely completes or turns in. He begins bringing in chewed-up pieces of paper into class, joking that his hamster ate his homework. By midyear, Ms. Blankenship has a sense that Mei will be passing the class but Ernesto will not.
A formative classroom experience. In a classroom that incorporates formative assessment, Mei and Ernesto have a very different experience. On the first day of class, they take their seats at trapezoid-shaped tables that are arranged in rows. Their teacher, Mr. Major, comments that they shouldn't get too used to the seating arrangement because they'll be moving the tables around to sit in different places and with different groups and partners, depending on class activities. The students will eventually come to understand the varied groupings as their teacher's response to ongoing formative assessment data.
Mr. Major also distributes a syllabus on the first day of class that clearly states the pre-algebra course objective: Students will demonstrate understanding of algebra by using algebraic symbols and variables; by simplifying algebraic expressions; by solving and graphing inequalities; and by evaluating, solving, and graphing linear and quadratic equations. Because Mr. Major wants to be sure his students can relate to the lofty goal articulated in the syllabus, he attaches a handout with additional big ideas about math, such as how it is used in school, in the workplace, and in life.
Numbers can show relationships between things, Mr. Major explains. We can analyze numerical data to guide decisions, and we perform operations on numbers every day in the form of measurement, shapes, and graphs. He posts each of these purposes on large sheets of paper, distributes stacks of sticky notes, and asks the students to record some of the ways in which they use math in their daily life and attach these notes to an applicable purpose. Mei thinks of how her family struggles to make ends meet and their current calculations to figure out if they can afford to buy a car to improve their employment opportunities. On sticky notes, she writes “make a budget” and “save for a car.” Ernesto tries to think of careers that don't require math but quickly realizes that the sales and service professions he was thinking of use math skills.
As the weeks pass, Mr. Major varies his instructional practices and uses pre-assessments and exercises like the sticky-notes activity and Quickwrites to get a sense of what approaches will work best for various students. For example, Mei often finds herself working in small groups where it's necessary for her to find the words to explain her mathematical reasoning. Mei realizes that when she has classmates who can clarify what the word problems mean, she is able to identify the mathematical operations necessary to come up with a solution. Initially, the idea of working with others was intimidating, but over time, Mei overcomes her shyness; working with and talking with others gets less and less intimidating.
Outgoing Ernesto relishes the opportunity to work with others. Sometimes he's grouped with other students who are struggling with the same concept that he is, and they all get directed instruction from Mr. Major; other times, the members of his group have a varied range of understanding, and they help one another learn. In this environment, Ernesto finds he doesn't feel as exposed or threatened; it's OK to admit he doesn't understand something when it's clear that others don't understand either. He also likes how the various activities in class keep things from being boring. Mr. Major doesn't just talk and assign problems; he gets everybody involved. For example, one day they all left the classroom and labeled things around the school that displayed a mathematical construct. They returned to compare and contrast the various findings, which they captured in a Venn diagram.
Mr. Major's approach also makes it easier for Ernesto, Mei, and their classmates to stay on top of the assignments. They each keep a notebook of concepts, assignments, reflections, and homework, which Mr. Major collects and reviews every three weeks and then returns with personal comments. Ernesto is especially pleased when his teacher notes his improvement in representations of algebraic expressions. He also finds suggestions and practice problems for building his capacity for evaluating algebraic expressions. Mr. Major's comments to Mei help her realize that she is very good at solving algebraic equations for the variable, and this makes her feel more confident about her abilities to tackle the new challenges when Mr. Major presents her with word problems in her folder that require her to use her English to solve them.
Even test time is different in this classroom. The reviews are student focused and include a variety of questions and summarizing strategies. Mei is very relieved when Mr. Major explains to her that she'll be able to use a translator when tackling the test's word problems. Mr. Major tells Ernesto that he'll have the opportunity to complete only as much of the test as time allows; there will be no penalty for not completing every item. Because the test is sequenced by difficulty, Ernesto feels competent until the last few questions and doesn't get discouraged or feel tempted to give up. After the test, he receives additional practice materials related to the questions he found most difficult or didn't get to. Mei receives her own customized set of follow-up materials, complete with some learning extensions and exercises that ask her to apply concepts that she understands well.
Research supports what we all know about teacher practice and student success: student success is largely dependent on teacher practice. Jennifer King Rice (2003) asserts, “Teacher quality matters: It is the most important school-related factor influencing student achievement” (p. 1). Marzano (2003) states that “the impact of decisions made by individual teachers is far greater than the impact of decisions made at the school and district level” (p. 71).
One of the primary functions of formative assessment is to inform instruction. By providing information about student understanding relative to goals, objectives, and standards, formative assessment helps teachers to target their instructions for greater effectiveness and make responsive instructional adjustments. In this respect, teaching and assessing are intertwined. The overlap is beneficial to students in that they regularly receive feedback in the course of learning, and it's beneficial to teachers because they regularly receive information about their teaching. With formative assessment, teaching and assessing become a cyclical process for continuous improvement, with each process informing the other (see Figure A).
When asked to describe how routine use of formative assessment affects their classroom, teachers typically observe that it
Teachers and students at both the primary and secondary levels benefit from formative assessment. Although the material in this book will be relevant to you and your students regardless of the grade you teach, I have chosen examples that emphasize formative assessment's use at the secondary level.
In elementary schools, where the instructional emphasis is on basic literacy and numeracy, teaching and tests typically align with clear curriculum standards. For example, early readers are measured on phonemic awareness, reading comprehension, and fluency. Teaching is specific to these skills, and achievement is measured through readily available measures such as DIBELS (Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills). Contrast this with secondary school, where content knowledge is less explicit, and the measures are less consistent. Consider, for example, this 9th grade science benchmark in the state of Connecticut: Understand how science and technology affect the quality of our lives. A high school's science curriculum includes a very wide array of content, including cell structure and division, bacteria, viruses, DNA, genetics, chemistry, atomic structure, the periodic table, organic compounds, energy, heat, electricity, environmental conservation, the solar system, atmosphere, geology, and much more. Yet the standardized test for science may only have questions on sedimentary rocks, eye color, and recycling. For this reason, teachers frequently need to write their own classroom tests (Greenstein, 2005). Using formative assessment strategies can enable a school science teacher to tailor classroom assessments and teaching practices to gaps in students' mastery of the curricular goals.
But the needs of secondary schools extend far beyond curriculum, teaching, and assessment alignment. A contemporary secondary classroom includes students with widely diverse backgrounds, readiness levels, and skills. Teachers frequently must meet the needs of a class of students with a span in abilities of five or six grade levels. Formative assessment—with its emphases on pre-assessing to identify background knowledge and beliefs and on tracking individual learning—is an effective way for teachers to customize, or differentiate, content and processes to the individual student (Heritage, 2007).
Formative assessment can also help boost student engagement and potentially reduce dropout rates. The High School Survey of Student Engagement
by the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy (2005) at Indiana University, using data from over 80,000 students in 19 states, found that less than half of students surveyed frequently discussed grades or assignments with a teacher. Almost half did not receive prompt feedback from teachers. Only 57 percent said they frequently contributed to class discussions. Half said they agree that they devote a great deal of effort to school. And only half said they get to make choices about what they study at school. Providing frequent feedback and choices to students is an essential element of formative assessment, and research shows that as students see progress in their learning and feel supported by their teacher, they often experience a positive change in motivation (Heritage, 2007).
Recommendations of studies at the middle school level center on lack of rigor and accountability in the curriculum. Making Middle Grades Work, from the Southern Regional Education Board (Cooney & Bottoms, 2005), concludes that middle schools need to adhere to rigorous content that is aligned with standards and develop supportive relationships that include academic support between teachers and students. Formative assessment has been shown to contribute to both achievement of standards and supportive curriculum interventions (Black, Harrison, Lee, Marshall, & Wiliam, 2003).
Preparing students for postsecondary education and for success in our swiftly changing global economy depends on fostering higher-level and critical thinking skills. The New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce (2008) asserts that public schools are graduating students with minimal workplace competencies. The report encourages development of analytical and creative thinking skills along with the ability to interpret information and manage people. There is emerging evidence that using formative assessment in secondary classrooms can help to bridge the gap between core knowledge and the higher-level skills of analysis and application (Partnership for 21st Century Skills, 2009).
Certainly, adopting formative assessment is not a guarantee for solving every problem facing secondary schools, but it has shown strong potential for ameliorating many of them.
This book is a guide for incorporating formative assessment in your instructional practices. Although there is a wealth of information available about formative assessment, there is a dearth of replicable practice, particularly at the secondary level. Workshops that I have attended implore the participants to use formative assessment. Web sites cite success stories and rationales. Books provide proclamations of the importance of formative assessment. And emerging research shows that formative assessment can be an effective strategy. Less clear, however, is how to do it.
Throughout this book, I will offer practical formative assessment strategies with specific examples of their use in secondary classrooms from grades 6 to 12 in a variety of content areas. These strategies and examples are meant to help teachers navigate through formative assessment in ways that make it useful, meaningful, and relevant in helping students make measured progress toward objectives. At regular intervals throughout the text, I will also prompt readers to self-assess, reflect on practices, and apply learning.
What do you know? is the quintessential starting question of formative assessment and a good start for any type of instruction. For our purposes, the beginning question is What do you know about formative assessment? In answering this question, you call up your previous learning and prepare yourself to link new learning to it in pursuit of a knowledge goal. The next questions to answer are What do you want to know that you don't know now? and How will go you about learning this? Many readers will recognize this sequence of self-assessment questions as the classic K -W-L strategy, short for Know, Want to Know, Learn.
Depending on your answers to these questions, you may wish to spend more time with some parts of the book than others. If you are seeking information to help build your foundational knowledge of formative assessment, begin with Part 1. If you are looking for specific strategies to use in the classroom, you will find them in Part 2. And if your learning goal is school reform and policy issues, you will find this information in Part 3.
Please note that this book uses a language of assessment and a set of core concepts that practitioners must be familiar with in order to succeed in using formative assessment. These include definitions of core terms, such as assessment, evaluation, and measurement, as well as an understanding of the terms that are routinely used in articles and professional development resources, including common formative assessment, validity, reliability, authentic, alternative, and differentiation. Appendix A offers a set of definitions derived from my own work and the synthesis of conventional wisdom. Depending on your degree of familiarity with assessment, you may decide to review this glossary before reading further. Appendix B provides a quick reference to a number of formative assessment strategies, including those I discuss in the text.
I hope that this book provides some of what you're looking for in terms of learning, but I also encourage you to explore other resources given in the text and listed in the References section if a topic strikes you as one you wish to explore in more depth.
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