Teachers Learn to Judge Formative-Testing Tools

By Catherine Gewertz — March 11, 2014 6 min read
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Four dozen teachers gathered recently to watch a colleague teach a lesson about Ray Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451 and then analyzed her performance.

But they didn’t crowd into the Massachusetts teacher’s classroom; they watched her deliver the 10th grade English/language arts lesson on a big screen, from a meeting room here. They were using her videotaped lesson to learn how to size up instructional resources like this for possible inclusion in a national digital library.

The Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, one of two federally funded groups of states that are designing general assessments for the Common Core State Standards, is setting up the library. The summative tests being built by Smarter Balanced and the other state consortium, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, are widely known and hotly debated.

But a lesser-known piece of the two groups’ work is to produce tools that teachers can use during the year to support instruction and gauge learning. Among the resources planned for the library are videos and other materials to help teachers deepen their practice, and classroom tools such as organizers and lesson plans that they can use with students.

At a meeting late last month to acquaint teachers with the Smarter Balanced tools, they learned criteria for judging the quality of resources for the digital library and tried applying them to the videotaped lesson taught by the teacher from an Expeditionary Learning school in Springfield, Mass.

The 46 educators were brought together by the American Federation of Teachers, which was conducting a training session for new teacher “ambassadors” who will contribute resources to the digital library and show colleagues in their seven home states how to do likewise. They will also help evaluate the resources submitted by colleagues from across the country. A grant from the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust is supporting a series of trainings for teachers in both the Smarter Balanced and PARCC suite of assessments.

‘Rich Discussion’

As they watched the English/language arts lesson in Massachusetts, the teachers here considered whether the video would be a helpful resource to them and their peers as they shape their own lessons and try to use “formative-assessment practice” to sense how well students are learning.

For a unit about the importance of reading, the Massachusetts teacher’s students had read Fahrenheit 451, along with an informational text about improving teenage literacy in New York City.

In the video, the teacher engages her students in discussion about the texts and presses them to support their ideas with evidence from what they read. She discusses her thinking about how she structured the lesson.

Afterward, one teacher attending the training remarked that she would like to have seen more depth in the student discussion and a more detailed use of the texts. Another said she didn’t think the lesson reflected the teacher’s stated learning goals. Several teachers remarked that they thought the video showed effective formative-assessment practice, since it appeared that the students clearly understood what they were expected to learn from the lesson and could articulate how well they had done with it.

Chrys V. Mursky, Smarter Balanced’s director of professional learning, who facilitated the session, told the teachers that discussing what to include in the digital library can double as professional development, since it generates “such rich discussion.”

The training served as a tutorial for the summative part of the Smarter Balanced system. It also oriented the attendees to the interim tests that can be built from nonsecure items in the digital library to measure student learning at key points of instruction, and the formative-assessment strategies that are intended to help teachers gauge learning and adjust instruction as it’s happening.

Many teachers who attended the training knew only about Smarter Balanced’s year-end tests; the interim and formative tools came as a surprise.

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Stephanie Cotterill, a 6th grade English/language arts teacher from Shenandoah Junction, W.Va., said she had “no clue” about the nonsummative resources and was “happily surprised.”

Many of the teachers said they placed far more value on the interim and formative resources than on the information the summative test will provide.

“The formative stuff is what goes on in the classroom; that’s the stuff teachers need to know the most about,” said Karen Lombardi, a literacy coach from New Haven, Conn.

Test Costs

Ms. Cotterill said that while a year-end test can help her plan for the following year, the interim and formative pieces can help her gear her teaching to her students’ needs in real time.

Whether the teachers get access to those resources, however, is an open question at the moment. The 23 states that belong to Smarter Balanced have two pricing options: $22 per student for only the summative piece of the test and $27 per student for all pieces, including the digital library with its interim tests and formative tools.

States have not formally signed up for one or the other yet but are expected to do so in the next few months, said Jacqueline King, a consortium spokeswoman. A recent informal poll showed that nearly all Smarter Balanced member-states hoped to buy the complete package, she said. Many teachers at the training asked whether a school district could opt for the full suite of tests even if its state had not done so, but Ms. King said that isn’t an option.

Showing Mastery

Teachers attending the training found themselves in a mini-seminar on formative assessment itself. Some teachers were unclear about the distinction between interim assessment and formative assessment, for instance.

But while many educators think of formative assessment as a pop quiz or other quick method of detecting student progress, experts urge teachers to imagine it more broadly as a range of carefully thought-out practices that engage students in a “feedback loop.” Teachers get a nuanced sense of how students are learning, and students get a clearer sense of what they’re aiming for and what they need to do to get there.

To engage in sound formative-assessment practice, teachers need to keep four things in mind, Ms. Mursky said: clearly laying out what they want students to learn, eliciting evidence of that learning, interpreting that evidence, and then acting on the evidence to adjust their teaching.

Without the clear articulation of what students must do to show mastery, they can’t give students solid “actionable feedback” so they know how to move forward, said Ruth McKenna, a facilitator for WestEd, a San Francisco-based research group that works with Smarter Balanced.

That was the lens on formative assessment the teachers sought to learn at the training, so they could apply it to materials they would create, or review, for the digital library.

Resources submitted to the library are evaluated by the “ambassador” teachers, as well as by teams of Smarter Balanced teachers who are serving as consortium experts in their home states. The ultimate decision about which resources will be included in the library will be made by “state leadership teams” in each state, made up of educators from K-12 and higher education, consortium officials said. Some resources in the library will be teacher-created, and others will be commissioned from a vendor, they said.

Coverage of “deeper learning” that will prepare students with the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in a rapidly changing world is supported in part by a grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, at www.hewlett.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the March 12, 2014 edition of Education Week as Teachers Learn to Judge Utility of Formative-Testing Tools


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