Formative Assessment

Posted by Matt Berringer on March 2, 2015

by Heather MacCorkle Edick, M.S.Ed

Part 1 of 3

Formative AssessmentAccording to the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), formative assessment is a process used by teachers and students during instruction that provides feedback to adjust ongoing teaching and learning to improve students’ achievement of intended instructional outcomes (FAST SCASS & McManus, 2008).

The first thing to notice about this definition—and something that tends to get lost when training teachers on formative assessment—is that formative assessment is a process. It is a practice used by teachers and students while in the instructional period to inform one’s teaching and learning. The idea of formative assessment often devolves into speaking of types of formative assessment, which is natural when teachers discuss it together with summative, diagnostic, and benchmark assessment types. When we speak of the latter assessment types, we often give examples of these tests, which occur at regular intervals and result in a terminal classification of some sort, such as a grade or competency level. Formative assessment, however, is an ongoing process that often does not result in a grade or a mark. According to the PA DOE, "there is no such thing as a ‘formative test’” (Pennsylvania Department of Education, n.d.). Therefore, while teachers and students may make notes about a student's or a class’ progress, those notes do not end up in a gradebook, a test database, or a transcript. With student performance management software, a teacher can keep a record of formative assessment, if he or she wishes, but only for analysis, not for grading. The records can be used for teacher-student conferences, for example, to show the student how much he or she has progressed since the beginning of the unit. In other words, those records become evidence of formative assessment.

Another important thing to remember about formative assessment is that it is a two-way form of communication. Teachers and students must participate in the process for it to be effective.

In my opinion, a third important aspect of formative assessment is that it must take place within an environment in which students feel supported, cared for, and respected. When students feel this way, they are more likely to take risks, make mistakes with confidence, and strive toward mastery of a skill or concept. Formative assessment should be used to support progress toward a goal, not to expect perfection.

Physical education teachers, coaches, senseis, and music teachers use formative assessment all the time. Rarely do they expect someone to master a skill immediately. Rather, they want to see someone try, then to commit to practicing those skills they find challenging. Two key words here are see and practice. When teachers practice formative assessment, they are looking for evidence of learning. They then give feedback to the student, who returns to practicing with new ideas for mastering the concept or skill, often after sharing their concerns with the teacher. The teacher encourages the student to keep working at it, whatever “it” is. The teacher explains where the student is progressing and what he or she needs to do to keep progressing. If the teacher sees evidence of near mastery or mastery, then it is time to celebrate the student’s success and present him or her with more challenging material.

During formative assessment, teachers will often scaffold instruction to better support the students as they work on a unit of instruction. Teachers can choose which scaffolds will work best based on their observation of the students. One scaffold could be re-teaching the concept or skill in a different way, for example. Another scaffold might be using a graphic organizer to help students organize their thoughts. A third example would be to let a student use an audiobook to support a reading assignment. These choices are made after observing students, and are examples of differentiated instruction.

The West Virginia Department of Education provides a great list of formative assessment tools at this link. Teachers can adapt at least four of these activities for use with a classroom blog.

Observations: This formative assessment tool was described pretty thoroughly above, so I won't describe it again here.

Questioning and Discussion: Teachers who use Q&A and Discussion effectively can gather a lot of information about their students’ learning. Asking questions that do not allow for “yes/no” answers or regurgitating facts learned are the best questions to ask. Using “wait time” effectively will generate more thoughtful answers. The teacher can then take notes about the Q&A or discussion and make adjustments to instruction as needed. This formative assessment tool can also be used to mitigate misconceptions before they take root.

Exit Slips: When I think of checking for understanding, I immediately think of exit slips, a technique I first encountered when training adults to use software. Back then, they called them “smiley sheets.” Basically, students answer questions in writing about the lesson and the teacher uses the responses to adjust instruction and address misconceptions. The only problem I have with this technique is that the teacher usually has to wait until the next class period to intervene and that might be too long a wait.

Learning/Response Logs: I call them journals, but you may disagree. When students keep a journal of their learning, they improve their writing skills, but also provide the teacher with great clues about how they are doing with the material worked on in class. Teachers can respond to these logs, which gives students great feedback they can use to better understand something, overcome cognitive dissonance, and relearn something they misunderstood.

Constructive Quizzes: These quizzes (sometimes called "knowledge checks") are opened and closed during the class period, and the results are immediately shared with the students. A discussion about the results can help students understand the material better and relearn what they misunderstood.

Heather MacCorkle Edick, M.S.Ed, is Team Lead—Staff Education, SunGard K-12 Education. She blogs regularly at THIS LINK.