Busting Up Misconceptions About Formative ‘Assessment’

By Catherine Gewertz — April 08, 2013 5 min read
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To understand formative assessment, it’s better to think of it less as a test, and more as good teaching practice.

That was the message offered by a panel of scholars and practitioners who convened on Capitol Hill today to clear up what they see as widespread misunderstanding of formative assessment. The gathering, sponsored by the research group WestEd and the National Association of State Boards of Education, was timed to coincide with WestEd’s release of a trio of policy papers about formative assessment.

The papers—and the panel discussion—land at a particularly opportune time, since two big groups of states are working on designing tests for the common standards. While most of their focus (and their federal funding) is being funneled to the year-end and interim assessments, which will be rolled out in 2015, they each have funding, through a separate, supplemental grant, to design a suite of accompanying tools and practices, including formative assessments that will be available through the groups’ online portals. It isn’t entirely clear yet what these “formative tools and practices"—as the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium calls them—will be. But clearly, the panelists see this as a moment to influence the resources the two consortia create, and publicly frame their use.

Margaret Heritage, the assistant director for professional development at CRESST, a center for assessment research based at UCLA, dismissed the common view that formative assessment is about “giving more frequent mini-tests.”

She said it is a set of practices that are designed not only to figure out how well students are learning as they go along, but to provide feedback to them in concrete, actionable ways that enable them to make progress. Part of the work, too, Heritage argued, is to teach students to self-assess, self-monitor and self-regulate, so they are more empowered learners. Too often, she argued, the education field discusses teaching and learning in a way that frames students as passive recipients.

“People still talk about delivering instruction to children, as if they’re mailboxes into which learning will be delivered,” she said.

Stanley Rabinowitz, WestEd’s senior program director for assessment and standards development, said many educators confuse interim assessment with formative assessment. While ways of “assessing” students—figuring out what they know—can be envisioned as points along a spectrum, he said, “I’d prefer that you moosh together formative [assessment] with instruction, not with interim and summative assessment.”

A principal who has taken formative practices seriously at her school, and a WestEd researcher who works with schools on the practice, offered views from the field. They made no bones about the difficulty of the work if it’s done right; it requires an intense focus on learning how to observe and document students at work to gather evidence of what they are learning, the two women said. It also demands a deep dive into grain-sized analysis of student work, and the art of giving careful, actionable feedback to spark their growth, they said. All of this requires untold hours of professional development, with teachers and principals hunkered down for intense study together, they said.

Letting formative assessment shape a school’s teaching means turning a basic underpinning of current classroom practice on its head, said Nancy Gerzon, a senior research associate at WestEd. Instead of starting with what students don’t know, and trying to fill that empty space, start with figuring out what students know and build on that, she said.

“This is revolutionary,” she said, and it leads to “crazy, chaotic, somewhat disorganized-looking classrooms” that aren’t typically what’s accepted in schools. If you look closely at what’s happening in such a classroom, however, she said, an impressive picture emerges. She described a 5th grade classroom she’s been working in to illustrate her point. It’s a high-poverty school, but one in which achievement is improving since it has been revamping its work around formative assessment, Gerzon said.

In this classroom, a visitor can see that “kids are everywhere.” They’re lying in beanbag chairs by the window. They’re bouncing on springbound stools. They’re sitting at computers or whiteboards. Some are working with tutors, others with an ELL instructor. When interviewed, though, they are quite able to describe exactly what they’re doing and how it fits into the project they’ve been conducting on the impact of mining on the local geography. They know exactly where they are in their learning, and where they are going, Gerzon said. They were able to tell her how the scatter plots they were making with data they had gathered drew on lessons they’d learned in math the previous week. And through this whole process, the children’s teacher wasn’t “leading” the class. She was carrying a clipboard, documenting the evidence of learning she was seeing throughout the classroom.

One of the challenges of undertaking this kind of approach, Gerzon said, is that parents don’t understand it.

“They walk in and see chaos, and they can’t see that all of this is planned, all of this is structured,” she said.

It’s such a profound shift in practice—especially the role of teacher as facilitator—that it’s impossible to underestimate how much frequent on-the-job professional development is required to accomplish it, said Yvonne Watterson, who got deeply into the practice as the principal of Girls Leadership Academy of Arizona. It required hundreds of “tiny little conversations,” on an ongoing basis, about student work and how teachers can document it and give feedback, she said. But it paid off: the school’s achievement on test scores rose, Watterson said.

If any of these arguments sound familiar, it could be because you’ve heard Heritage make them before. We reported back in November 2010 about a paper Heritage wrotethat sounded some of these same notes. She discussed these themes on a panel shortly after that paper came out. And she engaged in a dialog about them with an EdWeek reader here on Curriculum Matters (here and here.)

All of that was happening just as the two assessment consortia won their federal grants and began their work. Heritage was concerned then that formative practices would be construed as just one more test. How is she feeling now, two years later, as the suite of tests and practices near their release?

The formative tools and practices created by the consortia need a key ingredient to work the way they should, she told me.

“Without [professional development] to support teachers? I’m not optimistic,” she said. “It’s how to be a teacher; that’s what we’re really talking about.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.