22 February 2014

Formative Assessment--A Process--Not a Thing

While lurking in the #nctechat about formative assessment last Sunday, my book-a-week reading decision was made for me even as Franki Sibberson was requesting individuals to send her links to any blog posts.  She requested we send her our links by the following Sunday, so I knew I had my work cut out for me since I planned to read Formative Assessment:  Making it Happen in the Classroom and also revisit the NCTE position statement on formative assessment before writing my post.  My journey to this particular book choice began long before the #nctechat, but my determination to write about formative assessment was solidified after reading all the excellent tweets by educators from around the country. 

Eight years ago, school administrators walked into the library where we we having our weekly faculty meeting carrying posters displaying three questions. 

We were told to hang the poster in our classrooms, and then teachers and students in the building where I taught recited these questions regularly. Hanging the poster did not improve my teaching or my students' learning because I had no idea why we were required to post these questions. What I saw and experienced were mandates I assumed were being passed down to help our students perform better on the state standardized test, and I can assure you that I did not, still do not, nor will I ever believe the sole reason to teach anything is for students to perform well on a standardized test.  The first problem with this scenario is that I did not own new practices or embrace these questions.  The second problem with this scenario is that it's a perfect example of poor implementation of great ideas. 

Make the most of a situation--that's what I do, and that's what I did with the above scenerio as well.  Always, I wanted what was best for my students, and I wanted them to think, to learn, to read, to write, to debate, so we accepted the policy and we learned. We learned together, with me learning more about what my students knew and could do and my students learning more of the literacy skills they needed to be successful.

Years after seeing those three questions for the first time, I began working for the state education department and began reading and learning more about formative assessment. As a state we used Classroom Assessment for Student Learning:  Doing It Right, Using It Well.  The questions I had been introduced to years before began making more sense to me as I learned and studied this text and participated in office-wide trainings in preparation for our state content leadership network meetings that would be our statewide system for implementing the Common Core State Standards.  Our office leaders understood the need for new standards to be introduced within a larger context of highly effective teaching and learning and balanced assessment practices.

One of the highlights of the three years I spent working for the state education agency was my assignment as Kentucky's representative to the FAST SCASS.  Our group, led by Margaret Heritage,  convened quarterly in different locations around the country to discuss formative assessment and to learn from one another about how formative assessment (in practice & policy) looked in our respective states.  Working with Heritage was a life-changing opportunity for me professionally because the three questions that were introduced to me all those years before as a teacher made complete sense in a deeper context of learning.

This week I re-read Heritage's book and revisited my many pages of notes from our FAST SCASS meetings.  I also reviewed the NCTE position statement and the Twitter responses by so many teachers who know and understand formative assessment as a process in their classrooms daily.  Resonating with me this week is the stance made by NCTE (and the FAST SCASS).  Formative assessment is not a test or a thing--it is a process.

Effective teaching and learning is clearly the goal for the teachers represented in this book on formative assessment in the classroom. Throughout the book you see specific classroom examples of learning goals and success criteria as well as specific questions teachers ask in various math, science,  and English language arts classrooms.  For example, a sixth grade math teacher "thinks carefully about the questions she uses throughout her lesson both to scaffold learning and elicit evidence (p.60)." Her questions for the start of a lesson, middle of a lesson, and end of a lesson are shared along with her notes for what she's looking for during the lesson so she can make adjustments based on student responses.

Student self-assessment also plays a prominent role in the practices of the teachers represented in the book, and readers even see charts and examples of sheets teachers use to help students assess their progress toward learning goals.

One of my favorite parts of the book though is the chapter on formative feedback for learning.  Here I read more examples, reviewed additional charts, and learned about additional resources on effective feedback that empowers learners.  This chapter emphasizes teachers and students answering three questions--Where am I going, where am I now, where am I going next?