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«Approved by the NCTE Executive Committee October 21, 2013 Effective teachers are constantly engaged in the process of formative assessment: offering one ...»

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Formative Assessment That

Truly Informs Instruction

Approved by the NCTE Executive Committee

October 21, 2013

Effective teachers are constantly engaged in the process of formative assessment: offering one more bit of explanation from the

front of the room when students’ heads tilt and brows furrow, asking a student to re-read a paragraph (this time aloud, maybe)

when he shrugs at a question in a conference, handing a student her soon-to-be new favorite book based on the dozens of

conversations about the kinds of stories she likes and doesn’t over the course of the year. These acts of decision making, informed by student response to purposeful or intuitive prompts, are the threads out of which skill, knowledge, and understanding are woven collaboratively by teachers and students.

Formative assessment can look more structured, too, with teachers Formative assessment is the lived, daily beginning a class period with a discussion of a short list of general embodiment of a teacher’s desire to misunderstandings garnered from a recent quiz, grouping students with varied activities based on the writing they did the class period before, refine practice based on a keener or pairing students to read each other’s drafts with a prepared list of understanding of current levels of questions and prompts. In whatever shape it takes, formative student performance, undergirded by assessment is the lived, daily embodiment of a teacher’s desire to the teacher’s knowledge of possible refine practice based on a keener understanding of current levels of paths of student development within student performance, undergirded by the teacher’s knowledge of possible paths of student development within the discipline and of the discipline and of pedagogies that pedagogies that support such development. At its essence, true support such development.

formative assessment is assessment that is informing—to teachers, students, and families.

Well over a decade into federal education policy that endows significant consequences to single tests of student achievement too late in the academic year to lead to any action, teachers might be pleased that the term “formative assessment” is appearing in the broader discourse among test makers and publishers of educational materials. Teachers are very aware that frequent, inprocess checks for understanding are what allow them to teach better and improve student achievement, an awareness that has been supported by extensive research into formative assessment since the 1960s. However, applying the term “formative assessment” to those commercial products or tools that are sought out, purchased, or imposed by those least involved in the daily work of classroom learning raises serious concerns: Unless a formative assessment tool functions demonstrably as a lever for meaningful teacher and student decision making, it is being marketed under erroneous pretenses. While well-designed tools or assessment strategies are a key component to authentic formative assessment, if they are not what teachers consider the right tools for the immediate task at hand, they are frustrating and counterproductive.

The sections that follow offer first a broad discussion of the many and varied purposes of assessment, followed by an explanation of what formative assessment is and is not, highlighting the central importance of teacher decision making in the process of assessment that informs instruction and improves student learning. At the end, readers will find a checklist for decision makers considering the best ways to incorporate formative assessment into the learning cycle of students in their schools.

Not All Formative Assessment Is Created Equal Teachers and schools assess students in a variety of ways for a variety of reasons—from the broad categories of sorting, ranking, and judging to the more nuanced purposes of determining specific levels of student understanding, restructuring curricula to meet student needs, and differentiating instruction among students. In the recent past, educators have made a strong distinction between summative assessment (generally seen as a final evaluative judgment) and formative assessment (generally seen as ongoing assessment to improve teaching and learning). However, in today’s assessment environment this distinction may be a false one; in fact, many believe the difference between the two terms has more to do with how the data that is generated from assessments is actually used (Gallagher). For example, formative assessments that are really mini-summative assessments, designed in large part to improve performance on summative assessments, are quite different from formative assessments that “occur at or near the point of instruction, allowing teachers and students to make the right decisions about teaching and learning at the right time for the right reasons” (Gallagher 82). Johnston (1997) offers a useful distinction between these two types of assessment when he suggests that questions or assessments can be interpreted either as genuine requests for information or as assertions of control. Teacher-created classroom assessments designed to inform instruction are much more likely to function as real requests for information that can change instruction and improve learning; "mini-summative" assessments, because of the external imposition and distance from in-the-moment decision making, serve as a means of control (of teachers, students, and curriculum). Thus, while many recently released commercial products advertised as formative assessment suggest that their main use is to prepare students for summative assessment, most educators recognize formative assessment as “a systematic process to continually gather evidence about student learning” (Heritage, 141). This kind of authentic formative assessment, teachers contend, is rooted in instructional activity and is connected directly to the teaching and learning occurring at that moment (Pinchot & Brandt).





Over 30 years of research suggest formative assessment is a vital curricular component, proven to be highly effective in increasing student learning (Black & Wiliam 1998). Cizek distilled this research, identifying 10 elements across the studies that researchers have noted as important features (Cizek 8).

Formative assessment:

1. Requires students to take responsibility for their own learning.

2. Communicates clear, specific learning goals.

3. Focuses on goals that represent valuable educational outcomes with applicability beyond the learning context.

4. Identifies the student’s current knowledge/skills and the necessary steps for reaching the desired goals.

5. Requires development of plans for attaining the desired goals.

6. Encourages students to self-monitor progress toward the learning goals.

7. Provides examples of learning goals including, when relevant, the specific grading criteria or rubrics that will be used to evaluate the student’s work.

8. Provides frequent assessment, including peer and student self-assessment and assessment embedded within learning activities.

9. Includes feedback that is non-evaluative, specific, timely, and related to the learning goals, and that provides opportunities for the student to revise and improve work products and deepen understandings.

10. Promotes metacognition and reflection by students on their work.

Heritage further categorizes formative assessments into three types that all contribute to the learning cycle:

• “on-the-fly” (those that happen during a lesson), • “planned-for-interaction” (those decided before instruction), and • “curriculum-embedded” (embedded in the curriculum and used to gather data at significant points during the learning process).

–  –  –

Formative Assessment as Stance In order for teachers to be successful assessors, they must develop an “assessment literacy” (Gallagher & Turley): a deep understanding of why they assess, when they assess, and how they assess in ways that positively impact student learning. In addition, successful teacher assessors view assessment through an inquiry lens, using varying assessments to learn from and with their students in order to adjust classroom practices accordingly. Together these two qualities—a deep knowledge of assessment and an inquiry approach to assessment—create a particular stance toward assessment.

When teachers who hold this stance as knowledgeable inquirers are given the autonomy to make decisions about the assessment practices that will provide meaningful information in their own classrooms, formative assessment can indeed be powerful and productive, especially those assessments that are planned, designed, implemented, and studied by the classroom teacher (Stephens & Story). The most meaningful of these assessments provide information the teacher can use to better understand her students and to then support them in taking the next steps in their learning. The best formative assessments are not focused exclusively on externally mandated learning outcomes but also on timely information that teachers can use to determine a student’s current understanding and the areas that are nearly within the student’s reach (Vygotsky).

As knowledgeable inquirers, teachers are able to choose among a variety of tools and strategies that best suit the context of their own classrooms. Analogous to the work of ethnographers or teacher researchers, teachers use meaningful formative assessment to study students in action and the artifacts of their learning in order to better understand.

Tools and Strategies of Formative Assessment As teachers conduct their assessment work from this stance of knowledgeable inquirers, they have many strategies and tools from which to choose. Successful teacher assessors carefully select or create the right assessment at the right time in order to inform instruction and support the learner, thoughtfully administering the assessment with the least disruption to the ongoing learning in the classroom (Serafini). These assessments might be grouped into four types—Observations, Conversations, Student Self-Evaluations, and Artifacts of Learning—briefly described below. Further examples of teacher-based formative assessments can be accessed from this document’s Annotated Bibliography and on NCTE’s website: http://www.ncte.org/assessment.

Observations Careful observation is the foundation of a teacher’s assessment work. Teachers who observe students engaged in language use and learning come to know their students’ strengths and challenges and are then able to plan supportive classroom learning experiences. Learning to observe closely, to see beyond assumptions and predictions, is central to development of a formative

assessment stance. Observations take many forms:

• Field Notes: Teachers record (in journals, on computer, or on sticky notes) descriptions of classroom interactions, avoiding judgment and interpretation until later. Some teachers scribble notes during class, some wait until the end of the day, and others videotape and then later take notes, based on viewing particular segments.

• Running Records and Miscue Analysis: Teachers take quick notes about student reading while listening to their oral reading and to their retelling of what has been read.

• Checklists and Observation Guides: Teachers gather information about pre-selected learning behaviors or interactions by marking tallies on a chart or keeping a record of examples of specific student actions (such as the types of questions being asked or the particular strategies being used).

Conversations Based on questions they have about student learning, teachers may specifically ask students for further information by conducting surveys, interviews, or conferences. These may take a broad-brush look at general assessment information or a

targeted look at specific aspects of learning. Among the conversational tools teachers use for assessment are these:

• Surveys: Written or oral surveys can be helpful in gathering general information about reading or writing preferences or attitudes toward classroom literacy experiences. Data on surveys may show general trends in a class or for a group of students across time. Ideally, teachers would use this information to plan more focused follow-up assessments or observations.

• Interviews: Conducted one-on-one, interviews often provide a more targeted look at assessment. Teachers may work with open-ended questions, such as “When you are reading and you come to something you don’t know, what do you do?” (Burke) or “What would you like to do better as a writer?” or other questions based on specific questions they have about student learning.

• Conferences: In reading and writing conferences, teachers invite students to share specific information about their intentions, processes, and/or products in order to help both teacher and student better understand the student’s learning and identify next steps. Teachers often talk with students about the processes they use to select a topic for a writing piece, or the writing strategies they learned in a recent writing project. Through reading conferences, teachers learn why a student chose to abandon a particular book or what a student is working to understand in a current reading selection.

Student Self-Evaluations An important component of formative assessment, student self-evaluations are deliberate efforts to elicit student perspectives on their own learning. Students may reflect on progress toward a goal, on processes used for reading or writing, on new goals, or on lingering questions. Self-evaluations encourage students to monitor their own learning and learning

needs and serve as an additional source of information on student learning. Student self-evaluations can take many forms:

• Exit Slips: In order to gather information about current understandings and/or current questions, teachers invite students to complete a quick “exit slip” as they leave the room or at the end of a lesson.

• Rubrics and Checklists: Using pre-determined or student-generated lists of quality indicators, students assess their own work and use the information to revise or to plan future learning experiences.

• Process Reflections: Students write reflections that highlight the process they used to create particular artifacts or understandings and lessons they learned that will influence the way they approach similar work in the future.

• Student-Led Conferences: Conversations between student/parent, student/teacher, or among student/ parent/teacher are designed to allow the student to highlight significant areas of growth and to set goals for future learning.

Artifacts of Learning Working alone or, preferably, with others, teachers review data about individual students or groups of students for the

purpose of planning future learning experiences. For example, teachers may:

• Collect a variety of sources of information on a single learner (case study) in order to identify patterns of understanding across the data set. Data may include samples of student work, notes based on classroom observations, input from other adults including parents, as well as standardized assessment data.

• Review a class set of work samples or observations in order to group students for further instruction or to plan learning experiences for the entire group.

• Look back at a variety of points along a student’s learning journey over the school year or over several years in order to see patterns of growth and to identify important next steps.

Analysis Regardless of the tools and strategies used to gather information about learning, teacher assessors engage in ongoing analysis of the information available. As those working most closely with students as they engage in learning, classroom teachers constantly make decisions based on their analysis of the information available at any given moment. Formative assessment allows teachers to then immediately match instruction to students’ needs.



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