Call them “formative,” “internal,” or “enhanced,” but whatever label you hang on a new wave of federally financed assessments being piloted this fall in 10 states, experts say they are a sign of the growing recognition that standardized end-of-grade tests are not the end-all, be-all for measuring student learning.
“It’s a conceptual shift,” said Elliot Weinbaum, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania’s Consortium for Policy Research in Education, or CPRE—part of the coalition of organizations and 10 states that won a $1.3 million, 18-month grant from the U.S. Department of Education to improve state academic assessments.
“No Child Left Behind helped us identify challenges and problems,” Mr. Weinbaum said, referring to the 5½-year-old federal law, which uses state-test results as the primary gauge of academic progress. The next step, he added, is to start asking, “Now, what are we supposed to do about them?”
The coalition’s pilot project may yield some answers. It is now under way in a small number of high-poverty, low-performing high schools in Arizona, Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Nebraska, North Carolina, and Virginia.
Teachers at each of the roughly 30 pilot schools are spending several weeks this summer in small groups to craft portfolios of formative assessments.
Definitions of formative assessment vary, but “it’s basically a way to assess your students during instruction so you can adjust your instruction to change your achievement outcomes,” said Don Long, the director of assessment at the Washington-based Council of Chief State School Officers, which is helping coordinate the coalition’s work. Far from another level of formal exam, he said, “formative assessment is simply good teaching; it’s almost invisible.”
The teachers in the project are using materials provided by the Princeton, N.J.-based Educational Testing Service—a partner in the coalition—as a springboard. But teachers are supposed to develop their own assessment mechanisms, which can include everything from snap quizzes to color-coded systems for students to let teachers know how well they’re understanding a lesson in progress.
A book by Richard J. Stiggins lays out the features teachers should consider when crafting formative assessments.
SOURCE: Classroom Assessment for Student Learning
“The idea is not to give them the tools they need, but teach them how to make their own tools,” said Richard J. Stiggins, the expert in educational measurement who devised many of the materials at what is now the Portland, Ore.-based Educational Testing Service Assessment Training Institute. ETS books by Mr. Stiggins and others, including Classroom Assessment for Student Learning, are provided only to help nudge teachers in the right direction with critiques of sample assessments and general pointers.
“Offer regular descriptive feedback” is one of the book’s seven strategies of formative assessment. “Engage students in self-reflection, and let them keep track of and share their learning.”
Formative assessment isn’t a new idea, and companies and nonprofit organizations such as the ETS already sell item banks and other off-the-shelf formative-assessment products. But the coalition aims to help teachers produce assessments that will reflect and further the learning that’s happening in their own classrooms.
“Formative assessment is not something you buy; it’s something you practice,” Mr. Stiggins said. “What [the pilot teachers] are developing is their assessment literacy, their capacity to build assessment systems in high schools to meet information needs of different users.”
Data for Teachers
Mr. Stiggins and other formative-assessment experts believe traditional tests aimed at informing school administrators are helpful—just not for teachers.
“I think [the coalition’s project] just reflects the need for data at the school level that can be helpful for the teachers in the classroom,” said Wendy B. Roberts, the director of assessment and accountability at the Delaware education department.
Delaware, as the official grantee of the federal grant, is the lead state in the coalition.
“Our main objective is to help states improve the quality and reliability of academic assessments and accurately measure student achievement,” said RebeccaNeale, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Education. “Providing information to help students do what they need to succeed—that’s our aim here with these grants.” Formative assessment, however, is not mentioned in the department’s recommended changes to the No Child Left Behind Act.
“To have the [federal] Department of Education come on board is good,” Mr. Stiggins agreed. “Trying to meet everybody’s needs with just one kind of assessment—there’s an acknowledgment now that that’s impossible.”
Larry Oliver, the principal of Pointe Coupee Central High School in Morganza, La., said teachers at his school—one of two pilot schools in the state—have not yet begun their professional development. But he said training he’s received at the ETS institute in Portland and the meetings he’s had with Scott Norton, the director of standards, assessments, and accountability at the Louisiana education department, have given him a new perspective on classroom assessments—one he’ll make sure teachers understand when they start rolling out formative assessments.
“We call it cheating when one student looks at another student’s work or uses a spell-checker, but we wouldn’t call it that [in the working world]. Is it cheating or is it learning?” Mr. Oliver said. If the assessment is used for learning, he added, such as allowing students to redo poor work, “it’s helping the students to assess their own work and comparing their work to each other.”
It’s how assessments are used, rather than what their content is, that makes them formative, said Douglas B. Reeves, the founder of the Englewood, Colo.-based Leadership and Learning Center, a private consulting organization—formerly the Center for Performance Assessment—that works with districts to design fair and rigorous assessments and classroom activities.
In part because of the rapid proliferation of high-stakes exams under the NCLB law, he said, many educators seem to treat all assessments as if they were standardized tests, “which leads to the perverse step of teachers doing test prep for ‘formative’ assessments.”
“What I see all across the country is people being marched through what is being called ‘formative assessment,’ in which case it’s just one more hoop to jump through,” Mr. Reeves said.
Mr. Stiggins said that teachers and administrators need a better understanding of what different kinds of assessments can and can’t do, and that this pilot project is a good step, but just a first step.
“It continues to be the case that we bring new teachers into the system without any sense of data analysis,” he said. Until new teachers get assessment-analysis training in their preservice years, and unless leadership-training programs ramp up their assessment teaching, Mr. Stiggins said, assessment in education will continue to be largely a case of “the blind leading the superblind.”
Coverage of new schooling arrangements and classroom improvement efforts is supported by a grant from the Annenberg Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the August 15, 2007 edition of Education Week as 10-State Pilot Preparing Teachers to Develop Tests