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June 11, 2015
Vol. 10
No. 19

Five Principles for Formative Assessments That Fuel Feedback

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      Formative assessments provide the feedback on student learning that guides teacher and student adjustments during learning. If teachers want the information gathered by these formative tools to have the most impact on student learning, they must design classroom assessments with these five principles in mind:
      1. Target key subskills and bodies of enabling knowledge (building blocks) in the learning progression.James Popham recommends identifying the key building blocks in a learning progression to target instruction at those foundational skills and bodies of knowledge. If the "big picture" curricular goal in a history class is to develop a well-crafted argumentative essay on whether or not the Bush administration planned to go to war against Saddam Hussein before the attack on the World Trade Center, students will need content knowledge about the first gulf war and skills in organizing content before formulating their essays.Once a particular subskill or body of knowledge has been identified as essential to success, don't move forward until students have demonstrated mastery. Classroom formative assessment will provide evidence of mastery.
      2. Target those concepts and skills with which students typically experience difficulty or harbor misconceptions about.Experienced teachers can often predict the points in the learning progression at which students typically experience difficulty or misconceptions. For example, students (and adults) often think mass and weight are the same thing. Teachers will need to clarify this misconception before the 3rd grade science unit on measurement progresses very far. It is only prudent to profit from experience and plan formative assessment tasks to confirm or refute such predictions before moving on.
      3. Align with the content provided in related classroom and common summative assessments.Skills and concepts taught and assessed at the classroom level must align with what is assessed by state common assessments (e.g., PARCC, SBAC, Iowa Assessments, Florida State Assessments). For students to perform well on state assessments, classroom assessments must sample content from them.
      4. Align with the levels of cognitive rigor featured in summative assessments.Classroom assessments provide meaningful feedback when they not only produces evidence of student knowledge and performance, but also evidence that students can function at the level of cognitive complexity expected on later, summative assessments. Therefore, formative assessment tasks must include the levels of cognitive complexity students will see later on. It is important to remember that cognitive complexity is not the same as task difficulty. <LINK URL="http://www.edutopia.org/blog/webbs-depth-knowledge-increase-rigor-gerald-aungst" LINKTARGET="_blank">Webb's Depth of Knowledge instrument</LINK> is an excellent tool for evaluating the cognitive complexity of classroom formative (and summative) assessments.Invite teachers to bring a typical classroom summative assessment and related package of formative assessments to a professional learning community session for collaborative analyses of cognitive rigor that use Webb's tool. If the group determines classroom assessments fall short of state or local expectations, the tool will help guide revisions.
      5. Mirror the item formats included in summative assessments.The validity of assessment results are eroded when students miss items because of a lack of familiarity with assessment formats rather than lack of content knowledge or skill. Therefore, assessment format training is probably the only strictly test-prep instruction that is defensible. For example, if the state summative assessment requires students to utilize specific computer applications (drag and drop, highlighting, drawing evidence from multiple resources, constructing graphs, etc.), classroom formative assessments should do so, as well.
      Not all feedback results in improved student learning. Feedback that affects learning is planned in alignment with these research-based guidelines for effectiveness. Additionally, when planning teacher training on effective feedback, be sure to not only model these processes for effective feedback, but also consider the prerequisite skills teachers will need to design effective feedback systems. For example, teachers may need guidance on developing learning progressions, determining the cognitive complexity of standards and assessments, or constructing valid and reliable classroom assessments. All of these play a role in determining the quality of feedback teachers get on classroom learning.

      Tim Westerberg is an experienced education consultant who has conducted hundreds of presentations, trainings, and workshops for state, national, and international schools, districts, and regional organizations. Westerberg's professional work focuses on improving classroom instruction, creating high-performing high schools, standards-based grading, building high-quality assessment systems, leadership training, and state standards implementation.

      Westerberg served as high school principal for 26 years, and has been active in a variety of school transformation, staff development, and leadership training initiatives in Colorado, across the nation, and internationally, including the NASSP/Carnegie Foundation Commission on the Restructuring of the American High School that produced the seminal report Breaking Ranks: Changing an American Institution. He is an author of several books and has written numerous articles published in a variety of education publications, including Principal Leadership magazine and Educational Leadership® magazine.


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