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Monday / November 20

Using Formative Assessment to Bring Clarity to the Classroom

How can formative assessment bring clarity to teaching?

Here’s one teacher’s answer:

“We can use the information [from formative assessment] to see that not all kids are struggling in the same area. We can see specifically which kids are struggling in which areas, then we can intervene with what they need, instead of ‘re-teaching’ the whole group. So then it’s a quick fix.”

What this teacher, Erin, says goes to the heart of formative assessment. Its purpose is to inform learning, not to measure it or sum it up. When teachers use formative assessment as part of their daily classroom practice, they are better able to meet the ongoing learning needs of their students. And their students end up learning more.

We know that no two students are the same. They learn in different ways and at different rates. A one-size-fits-all approach to assessment and to learning cannot be responsive to the diverse needs of students in our classrooms. If we care about the learning of all students, we have to care about the progress of each one.

Formative assessment is not standardized assessment – it isn’t a specific kind of test. Formative assessment is solely the business of teachers. They intentionally and systematically maximize opportunities for individual students to reveal where they are in their learning during a lesson. With this information, teachers can make decisions about how to secure progress in the best interests of each student. When teachers make a point of consistently inquiring into the status of their students’ learning, and take action based on the information, all students are able to move forward.

Formative assessment operates in the classroom as a feedback loop. It begins with teacher clarity about the intended learning for the lesson: what teachers want students to learn during one or more class periods. Then teachers need to decide how they will know if students have learned what they were supposed to. Often, teachers think in terms of what students will say, do, make, or write to provide them with indications that they have met the learning goal.

With clear goals, teachers can decide what formative assessment opportunities there are in the lesson that will provide them evidence about students’ learning. For example, are there student collaborative discussions they will listen to; will there be times when they are engaging students in dialogue about their learning tasks and activities to help them understand students’ thinking better; and are they are going to ask planned questions designed to elicit students’ thinking?

Two important points here: 1) formative assessment opportunities should provide substantive, qualitative insights into student learning, and 2) teachers intentionally plan to obtain these insights about student learning during the lesson – it is not something that is left to chance.

Once teachers have evidence of their students’ learning status relative to the learning goals, they can take action. This action might be to make teaching adjustments such as prompting, asking a question, modeling, explaining, or providing feedback (which is one of the most powerful actions teachers can take to support learning). And they might be targeted to individuals, groups of varying sizes, or even the whole class, depending on the students’ needs.

The power of formative assessment lies in targeted teacher actions. As Erin observed, “so kids who already knew it or didn’t have that misconception weren’t getting retaught it and weren’t getting something they didn’t need.” Those students could move on. The students who were struggling or had a misconception could receive a targeted teaching response to move their learning forward.

With clarity about where students are in their progress toward the intended goal, teachers can plan the next class period so as to keep the learning momentum going, all the while making sure that each student is making progress. However, formative assessment isn’t something that is just for teachers. Students are equal stakeholders in assessment with their teachers.

The students’ role as equal stakeholders in formative assessment begins when they understand the learning goal for the lesson. Students should be able to answer the question “What I am supposed to be learning and how will I know if I’ve learned it?” Only then can students engage in self-assessment, which we know is a hallmark of effective learning.

Through self-assessment students can think about their own learning while they are doing it, generating internal feedback about how well they are progressing. Ideally, we want students to be able to take action for themselves, based on their internal feedback, making adjustments to their own learning strategies in order to progress. In other words, we want students to be developing the skills of learning how to learn. These skills are important, not only for success in school, but also to be successful in college and the work place. We must ensure that all students have access to these skills – not just a privileged few – and formative assessment can be a big factor in this effort.

Erin believes that developing her skills in formative assessment has made her teaching “more efficient.” Reflecting on her formative assessment learning journey, she said “I’m not teaching the unit for two months because they are still not getting it! Now they [the units] are taking us two weeks and they are getting it. Our whole room [an inclusion classroom] is improving.”

Erin, like all teachers, wants each of her students to learn and make progress day by day. Formative assessment is an essential part of Erin’s toolkit to make this happen.

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Written by

Margaret Heritage is Assistant Director for Professional Development at the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards and Student Testing (CRESST) at UCLA, and leads the data use program of the Assessment and Accountability Comprehensive Center.

Prior to joining CRESST, she had many years of teaching and leadership experience in schools in the United Kingdom and the United States, including a period as a County Inspector of Education in the United Kingdom, and as principal at the UCLA laboratory school. She has also taught graduate classes in Education at the Department of Education at the University of Warwick, England, the University of California, Los Angeles, and at Stanford University.

Her current work focuses on data use for school improvement, learning progressions, formative assessment, and teachers’ use of formative assessment evidence.

Margaret Heritage is the co-author (with Alison Bailey) of Formative Assessment for Literacy, Grades K-6: Building Reading and Academic Language Skills Across the Curriculum, published by Corwin Press.

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