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Transformative Assessment in Action

by W. James Popham

Table of Contents

Chapter 1. Applying the Formative Assessment Process

A process, according to my dictionary, is "a systematic series of actions directed to some end." Such a definition fits formative assessment to a tee, for it accurately depicts the carefully planned steps involved when teachers or students use assessment-elicited evidence to make adjustments in what they are doing to teach or to learn. The "some end," in this case, is always an enhancement of students' learning.

Another feature of a process is that it can be applied in many situations. For example, back when I was a graduate research assistant pursuing a doctorate at Indiana University, my professors directed me to study various "electronic troubleshooting techniques" used by the U.S. Air Force during World War II. These were techniques employed to train maintenance personnel to accurately identify malfunctioning components in electronic equipment, such as radar systems and navigation instruments. My professors thought that some of these troubleshooting techniques might be applicable to teaching children how to solve complex mathematical problems and sent me off to conduct the research. One of the troubleshooting techniques I kept running into was something called the "Half-Split Process." It directed all maintenance personnel to split a malfunctioning system in half, choose one of those halves, and look there for the malfunctioning component. If everything in the selected half of the system turned out to have no problem in it, the technician's search would shift to the other half of the system. That half would be split in two, and the whole cycle would began again. By repeatedly "half-splitting" sections of a malfunctioning system into smaller and smaller units, the maintenance person was almost always able to winnow the search and identify the offending component. It worked when maintenance workers needed to repair electronic hardware, hydraulic systems, or any kind of complex equipment in which defective components were causing trouble.

A properly conceptualized process can be applied in myriad situations and to address a variety of challenges. Formative assessment is just such a process. What we're going to look at in this chapter are the ways in which formative assessment can be used.

The Applications of Formative Assessment

As we know, the formative assessment process involves the gathering and analysis of assessment-elicited evidence for the purpose of determining when and how to adjust instructional activities or learning tactics in order to achieve learning goals.

This chapter, organized around those potential adjustments, will supply you with an application framework—that is, a framework to help you determine when the formative assessment process might be profitably applied. And, of course, "profitably applied" in this instance is synonymous with "used to enhance kids' learning." There are five potential applications of formative assessment:

  1. To make an immediate instructional adjustment
  2. To make a near-future instructional adjustment
  3. To make a last-chance instructional adjustment
  4. To make a learning tactic adjustment
  5. To promote a classroom climate shift

As teachers consider installing the formative assessment process in their own classrooms, one of the most significant choices will be determining which formative assessment application to employ. That's because breaking them out in this way helps ensure thorough planning, proper preparation, and ultimate success.

Application 1: For Immediate Instructional Adjustments

Using formative assessment to make an immediate instructional adjustment means the teacher gathers data, analyzes it, and decides whether or not to change instruction right then, in that class session, in that moment. Immediate instructional adjustments can be based either on (1) teacher-administered assessment procedures, such as brief quizzes, or (2) student-reported levels of understanding.

Consider this scenario. Ms. Lee's 8th grade English students are midway through the first week of a three-week unit on punctuation. In the middle of the class session, Ms. Lee posts several multiple-choice questions designed to measure students' understanding of the day's lesson, which focuses on distinguishing between situations calling for s-apostrophe (s') versus apostrophe-s ('s). This is a subskill they must acquire in order to achieve the overall unit objective.

Ms. Lee uses her laptop computer and projector to present the multiple-choice questions one at a time. At her signal, the students hold up letter-cards to signify which of the choice options they believe to be correct. Ms. Lee scans the cards, making mental notes to herself. What she sees suggests her students are very confused. The number and variety of incorrect responses suggest not only that they have not mastered the "s-apostrophe" subskill, but also that they have misinterpreted the role of the apostrophe in such instances. Ms. Lee had anticipated this possibility, as students in previous years' classes had stumbled in similar ways.

With her analysis complete and a conclusion reached, Ms. Lee makes an immediate instructional adjustment. Rather than spend the second half of the class tackling the use of colons and semicolons, as she'd originally planned, she launches into a new instructional activity. First she tries to re-explain how apostrophes can make nouns possessive, but must be placed before or after the noun's final s, depending on whether the noun is singular or plural. She then distributes a 10-item practice sheet calling for students to distinguish between proper and improper uses of an apostrophe-s and an s-apostrophe. She models—step by step—how to respond to the first two practice items, and then asks the students to work with their pre-assigned study-pair partner to complete the remaining items. When they finish, she explains, they should pick up a copy of a prepared answer key, which provides brief explanations for all 10 practice items. Study-pairs are to compare the key's answers and explanations to their own in an effort to clarify any misunderstandings.

The virtue of immediate instructional adjustment is that it allows teachers to diagnose, address, and correct students' misconceptions instead of letting those misconceptions ferment overnight, after which they can be far more difficult to expunge. But while this is a clearly useful application of formative assessment, it definitely calls for advance work on the part of the teacher to predict what might go amiss in students' understanding and then to prepare suitable instructional responses.

Application 2: For Near-Future Instructional Adjustments

Applying the formative assessment process to make a near-future instructional adjustment involves the teacher's collecting assessment evidence of students' status relative to a longer-term instructional aim for the purpose of informing decisions about what to do better or differently in the next few class sessions.

Suppose Mr. Collins is in the midst of a six-week social studies unit designed to teach students to become skilled in analyzing political candidates' arguments. He has created a learning progression containing three subordinate subskills, each of which he believes is crucial to developing the overall analytic skill: (1) determining whether a political candidate's argument employs factual or distorted information, (2) identifying whether a candidate has or hasn't committed any logical reasoning errors, and (3) identifying the extent to which a candidate has relied on objective versus inflammatory language while presenting an argument.

One Tuesday, at about the four-week mark of this six-week unit, Mr. Collins asks students to complete an in-class, not-to-be-graded set of exercises based on applying the unit's second subskill, Logical Reasoning. That evening, he reviews the completed exercises and discovers that about half of the class seems to be seriously at sea. Mr. Collins is surprised by this worse-than-foreseen performance and decides that ameliorative action is warranted. He sees that his students seem confused by several sorts of logical fallacies, such as the difference between correlation and causation. He intends to re-explain each of these logical errors and illustrate them with examples that his students will readily understand. He also prepares a follow-up set of five take-home practice exercises dealing exclusively with the Logical Reasoning subskill.

Wednesday's lesson, focusing on Inflammatory Language (the third subskill in his learning progression) goes on as planned, but that Thursday, two days after the original collection of evidence, Mr. Collins supplies the new explanation of Logical Reasoning. He asks those students whose performance on the exercises indicated they were well on their way to mastering this subskill to serve as short-term peer tutors, and then sets aside 30 minutes for student-to-student tutorials. Mr. Collins also distributes the take-home practice exercises (along with an answer key) so that all students can apply their growing mastery of the Logical Reasoning subskill. He doesn't grade these exercises, but he does review students' responses to see if additional near-future instructional adjustments will be necessary. As is always the case with the formative assessment process, he will have done at least some preliminary thinking about what sorts of instructional actions might be taken if the data suggest the need for further instructional alterations. With the evidence in, Mr. Collins has time for additional analyses, can think through potential instructional options in light of the data's particulars, and can fine-tune his adjustment plans accordingly.

Application 3: For Last-Chance Instructional Adjustments

In the waning hours of a planned instructional sequence, when a teacher wants to discover whether students have mastered the target curricular aim they have been working toward, that teacher may apply formative assessment for the purpose of last-chance instructional adjustments. Instructional time still remains, and if the assessment evidence suggests that students are not at mastery or close to it, the teacher can provide additional or different instruction designed to get students back on track before the unit's scheduled conclusion—and before the unit's summative assessment.

This application of the formative assessment is often associated not just with the ends of units but also with the approach of an accountability test, particularly when teachers have a reasonably clear idea of what that test will cover. As an example, think about an annual statewide language arts exam that requires 8th grade students write (1) an original persuasive essay and (2) an appropriate 100-word summary of a 1,000-word magazine article. If too many students in a given school fail to perform satisfactorily on one or both of these tasks, the school will face serious penalties. With the date of this high-stakes test approaching, all the 8th grade teachers in a school agree to apply formative assessment to make last-chance instructional adjustments. They create a brand-new, essentially parallel form of the state's language arts accountability test—a "dress-rehearsal exam," which they administer three weeks before the "real" state test date. They score students' responses on both the persuasive essay and the written summary. Then, depending on their students' performances, certain teachers decide to spend the remaining classroom instructional hours dealing with those aspects of persuasive essay writing or article summarizing that appear to warrant additional instruction.

This application of formative assessment is appropriate for any genuinely important curricular outcome. But it's essential that a dress-rehearsal exam contain a sufficient number of items assessing the essential subskills and bodies of knowledge so a teacher can get a fairly accurate fix on where instructional support is required. Moreover, teachers needs to plan what they will do instructionally to address the mastery deficits uncovered by the dress-rehearsal exam before the subsequent real exam.

Application 4: For Learning Tactic Adjustments

The fourth way that formative assessment can be used is for the purpose of enabling students to use assessment evidence to monitor their own progress and decide whether they need to change the manner in which they're attempting to learn.

Students choose all kinds of ways to learn based on many factors, including personal preference, longtime habits, and the advice of past teachers. Some students may read teacher-assigned materials and complete homework activities without discussing this material with anyone, while others in the same class with the same assignments may discuss reading and homework at length with their family members and classmates. One 10th grader may prepare for a history test by reading through her notes three times with high-volume music slamming into her skull, while another 10th grader studies for the same test by translating his notes into an illustrated time line, working in tomblike silence.

Although this fourth application of formative assessment revolves around what students do, the teacher's role is significant. It's the teacher who establishes the expectation and the conditions so that each student can monitor his or her own learning progress and decide whether or not to make a learning tactic adjustment. To be completely candid, today's educators have few experiences to guide them in how to successfully install and nurture this application of the formative assessment process. The benefits of it, however, can be remarkable—namely, students who are actively reviewing their own classroom assessment data, connecting these outcomes to their own inputs, and making changes so that their efforts will yield more satisfactory results. Students engaged in learning tactic adjustment take an active role in their education, and this self-direction will surely serve them well in their future endeavors both inside and outside of school.

Application 5: For Promoting a Classroom Climate Change

The fifth and final application of the formative assessment process works to make a wholesale, teacher-led change in the "learning atmosphere" of a classroom, shifting that atmosphere from a traditional, often competitive orientation to a more learning-for-all orientation. Such a shift in classroom climate typically results from three significant changes:

  1. A change in learning expectations. It is no longer assumed that substantial learning is only possible for well-motivated students who possess sufficient innate academic aptitude. The teacher and the students see substantial learning as likely for all students, irrespective of how "smart" any student happens to be.
  2. A change in the locus of responsibility for learning. It is no longer assumed that the teacher is overwhelmingly responsible for students' learning. The teacher and students agree that students bear significant responsibility for their own learning and for the learning of their classmates.
  3. A change in the role of classroom assessment. Classroom tests are no longer viewed as the means to make grade-determining comparisons among students or to motivate students to study harder. Instead, classroom assessments are seen by teachers as the means to gather evidence necessary to inform instructional adjustments and by students as the means to gather evidence to make learning tactic adjustments. The vast majority of classroom tests are not graded at all.

One way to think of this fifth application of formative assessment is to regard it as a consummate implementation of the process that will secure maximum instructional mileage. As you've seen, there are applications of formative assessment focused on teachers' assessment-based decisions about whether or not instructional adjustments are appropriate. There's also an application of formative assessment focused on students' assessment-based decisions about whether to adjust their learning tactics. Well, because this fifth application of formative assessment promotes a complete shift in classroom climate, it is necessary to employ at least one or more teacher-focused and one or more student-focused applications of formative assessment. Promoting the three significant changes in classroom climate identified above requires a total, no-holds-barred effort.

Five Applications, One Process

We've now considered five different ways that the formative assessment process can be applied in a classroom. For a graphic representation of the applications, see Figure 1.1. What's crucial for you to recognize is that all five of these applications are dependent on the same fundamental process.

Figure 1.1. Applications of Formative Assessment

Much, although certainly not all, of a teacher's thinking about formative assessment occurs before any instruction actually takes place. As you'll see when we dig into each of these five applications of formative assessment, two factors typically turn out to be most instrumental in a teacher's planning. The first of these factors is linked to when an adjustment decision must be made and implemented: immediately or later? The second factor involves the kind of assessment evidence that will be used, which requires the teacher to decide what kinds of assessments to employ.

Some teachers who are on the fence about giving formative assessment a try might be fearful that it requires a "paragon of pedagogical prowess," that is, the ability to make myriad on-the-spot decisions about how to assess students and, thereafter, what sorts of adjustments to make. Well, although a number of pedagogical paragons can be found in our schools, you do not have to be such a teacher in order to implement formative assessment. All that's truly necessary is a modest amount of thoughtful, up-front planning. Yes, it's possible for teachers to conceptualize the formative assessment process so that it becomes amazingly complex, and hence, truly off-putting. This is a terrible mistake. At its base, formative assessment merely involves the periodic collection of assessment evidence from students so teachers and sometimes students can decide whether or not to adjust what they're doing. In the remainder of the book, you'll learn how to make plans so that this fundamentally simple process works well for you and your students.

As we take our closer look at each application of formative assessment in the chapters to come, you'll also see how fictional teachers attempt to use formative assessment in that manner. These teachers may go about things differently than you would yourself, but this is all right. Remember, current research evidence indicates that the formative assessment process is quite muscular; it can tolerate teachers' employing it in many variations and still work well.

In this book, I'm devoting comparatively little attention to the particular of how to build and use classroom assessments. You can find a number of suitable classroom assessment procedures, both formal and informal, in TA1. Additional particulars about how to construct and employ measurement devices and procedures are available in almost any textbook focused on classroom assessment (see, for example, Popham, 2011; Stiggins, 2006). However, it is worth emphasizing that measurement devices matter. To make formative assessment as successful as it can be, the assessment evidence on which it relies needs to be accurate. Formative assessment based on shabby assessment instruments and procedures is destined to become shabby formative assessment.

Reflection Questions

  1. From the perspective of promoting wider use of formative assessment, what are the advantages and disadvantages of looking at formative assessment in component parts: as four levels (as was done in TA1) or as five applications (as is done in this book)?
  2. If you had to come up with your own brief but accurate explanation of formative assessment—an explanation suitable for members of a non-educator audience—how would you describe it?
  3. What are the similarities and differences in the five applications of formative assessment outlined in this chapter? Consider coming back to this question after you have finished reading the five chapters that explore each application in greater depth to see if your views have changed.


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