Making Sense of (In)Formative Assessment

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photo credit: woodleywonderworks via photopin cc

I’ve been thinking about the phrase formative assessment a lot lately. It’s on my mind because my school district recently changed the term “quarterly benchmark” to “common formative assessment” or CFA. Yes, that’s one more acronym to remember.

The change to CFAs has sparked a lot of conversation in the English department. We have questions: If this is a formative assessment, does it go on the students’ grades? Where does the summative assessment fit in? What exactly does formative assessment mean?

Here’s one definition:

“Formative assessment is a systematic process to continuously gather evidence about learning. The data are used to identify a student’s current level of learning and to adapt lessons to help the student reach the desired learning goal” (141). – Margaret Heritage. “Formative Assessment.” Phi Delta Kappa.

Carol Ann Tomlinson, Professor of Educational Leadership, Foundation, and Policy at the University of Virginia talks about what she calls informative assessment. Tomlinson writes informative assessment “isn’t separate from the curriculum,” “isn’t about ‘after,'” “really isn’t about the gradebook,” and “isn’t about finding student weaknesses” – from “Learning to Love.” Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

I suspect that the term formative assessment means different things to different people. So, I did a little bit of research and landed on the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Position Statement on Formative Assessment. This document makes a lot of sense to me, so I thought I’d share some highlights here. Maybe by writing about it, I can make these concepts stick.

“Formative Assessments DO—

  • Provide immediate and useful feedback to students and teachers
  • Focus on progress or growth
  • Inform immediate next steps
  • Consider multiple kinds of information” (p. 6).

OK, that makes sense. No surprises there, right? Now, take a look at what formative assessments are not.

“Formative Assessments DO NOT—

  • View all students as being, or needing to be in the same place in their learning
  • Provide feedback weeks or months after the assessment
  • Look like mini-versions of pre-determined summative assessments
  • Focus on accountability
  • Focus on external mandates” (6).

Uh oh. I think we might be  in a bit of trouble there. We teachers are so trained to worry about standardized tests (re: summative) that I fear we have strayed from the practice of giving feedback to students based on informal, ongoing, non-evaluative formative assessments. If we embrace NCTE’s version of formative assessment, we can put our focus back on student learning, not the standardized tests. Won’t that be a relief? Of course, if we systematically use formative assessments in our classroom, students will almost certainly perform better on the big state tests in the spring.

So here is what I plan to do in my English classroom:

  • Look at what the student needs in order to learn and grow. Plan assessments accordingly.
  • Give feedback on writing and reading before assigning the grade. Student grades can be based on summative assessments after they have gotten feedback based on formative assessments. 
  • Include students in the assessment process. This can take many forms: For example, have students create rubrics based on criteria gleaned from mentor texts. Another idea is to make sure students regularly reflect on their progress towards goals they perceive as important.
  • Widen my view on what I consider to be assessment. Remember that assessments can be observations in the form of conferences or informal conversations. I can also use student self-assessments, such as surveys, exit slips, written reflections.

I still have questions about how formative assessment fits into student grades, but I also don’t really care. The need to assign grades is in many ways contrary to what students need in order to learn. I like the idea of assigning grades based on how students master concepts after I give them multiple opportunities to improve. Formative assessment may not have anything to do with student grades but they should have everything to do with their growth.

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