Monday, April 18, 2011

Formative Assessment in a Summative Assessment World!

It was great to see so many friends and colleagues last week at the National Mathematics - NCSM and NCTM - conferences in Indianapolis. I hope to see you next year in Philadelphia April 23rd- 27th, 2012. With the Common Core State Standards and the current pressure of one size testing fits all, I pressed the issue of school administrators, teachers and teacher leaders shifting the 90% (Summative testing) - 10% (Formative testing) paradigm into a 0%-100% paradigm with formative assessment learning as the primary reason for any type of testing - whether it is used for grading purposes or not. You can click here for a pdf of the presentation.

And as a valued elementary school colleague reminded me last week, the emphasis on using testing in order to assign grades as the primary purpose of assessment is not just a 6-12 dilemma.

Dylan Wiliam (2007) provides insight into the importance of formative assessment as perhaps the most important leadership task of the Principal, teacher team and teacher leader.

Students taught by teachers developing the use of assessment for learning outscored comparable students in the same schools by approximately 0.3 standard deviations, both on teacher produced and external state-mandated tests (Wiliam, Lee, Harrison and Black, 2004). Since one year’s growth as measured in the Trends in Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) is 0.36 standards deviations (Rodriquez, 2004, p.18), the effects of the intervention [formative assessment] can be seen to almost double the rate of student learning (p. 1059).

Did you notice that last sentence? Almost DOUBLE the rate of student learning!

High quality assessment practices then, function to integrate formative assessment for learning (used for making instructional decisions and forming student learning progress and direction) with summative assessment of learning (used for evaluating students’ achievement, assigning student grades and evaluating overall program success on school, district or state benchmark exams).

The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics explains this relationship clearly:

Assessment should be more than merely a test at the end of instruction to see how students perform under special conditions; rather, it should be an integral part of instruction that informs and guides teachers as they make instructional decisions. Assessment should not merely be done to students, it should be done for students, to guide and enhance their learning (2000, online).

During the decade following this 2000 NCTM declaration from The Principles and Standards for School Mathematics, significant research regarding the impact of formative short term assessments on overall student learning was cited by educational assessment experts including Rick Stiggins (2006) and James Popham (Ed Leadership, November, 2006).

Stiggins and his colleagues (2006) in Classroom Assessment For Learning: Doing It Right- Using It Well provide a terrific resource for how to implement effective formative assessment practices. They state:

“Few interventions have the same level of impact as assessment for learning. The most intriguing result is that while all students show achievement gains, the largest gains accrue to the lowest achievers” (p 37).

Thus, school based assessment cannot function solely as an accountability measure. Effective school teachers and leaders recognize that the skillful use of assessment can work in positive ways to benefit teacher and student learning. Assessment for learning begins when teams of teachers use classroom assessments and other information sources about student achievement in order to advance student learning.

PLC Teacher Learning Team Formative Assessment Actions with Summative Assessments

Every grade level or course based teacher learning team responds to these questions:

1. How well do we understand in advance of teaching a content unit of study - the student learning targets and the summative assessments that align with those targets?

2. How well do we identify agreed upon scoring rubrics and procedures that will accurately reflect student achievement on those assessments?

3. How well do we use classroom assessments that build student confidence and require them through goal setting and reflection to take responsibility for what they know and what they don’t know in the aftermath of the summative test?

4. How well do we provide summative assessment results that provide frequent, descriptive (versus judgmental) feedback for students, providing them with specific insights regarding their strengths as well as how to improve?

5. How well do we - as a team - adjust instruction based on the results of both formative and summative classroom assessments?

The described teacher team “assessment actions” begin to build a bridge across the barrier that assessment is solely an "ends" about measurement of fixed performance and achievement (a belief and practice held by some teachers and administrators), but rather assessment is a tool that can be used as a "means" to learn and improve based on every summative assessment moments.

It does not mean that grades are not an important reflection and outcome of learning - grades just cannot be the primary reason for assessing student knowledge, growth and development.


  1. Over the last couple of years, our school has been fortunate in having the opportunity to engage in a lot of crucial but much needed conversations regarding formative assessment. While it is true that many of our teams are proud to have common assessments, it is just as important for us to reflect on the ways we assess student learning and how we use this information to modify our instruction. Call it testing or assessing, the idea of evaluating student learning is not a bad idea in it of itself but what's important is how this data is used by teams to discuss how to continue providing opportunities for student success in their respective courses. More importantly, assessment should be an opportunity to reflect upon what the students already know and how they can continue to make progress in attaining the established learning targets.

  2. I was lucky enough to attend the Ahead of the Curve summit last month in Schaumburg, Illinois. It was a great experience, and it reinforced and affirmed a lot of what we are already doing in our very progressive school to ensure student learning. Formative assessments paired with immediate feedback are the most critical tools we have to guarantee learning for all. The paradigm shift is a tough one, mainly because we grew up in and experienced a summative assessment world. As the learning leader in my building, it is my personal challenge and charge to support teachers as they foster a growth mindset in their classrooms and help each student realize their learning potential. The only way to do this is to rely heavily on the power of formative assessments and the way they influence and shape our educational practices.

  3. Our district held a RtI inservice yesterday afternoon for all elementary teachers. One of the areas of discussion was the use of the three types of assessment: Summative, Benchmark, & Formative. The group I was in had a wonderful discussion of the three types, and we all agreed that the use of more formative assessments is the direction we need to be headed. However, we also agreed that to use formative assessment correctly, we need more TIME to create, plan for, and use these assessments and the resulting data in order to have a positive impact on student learning. I was pleased to see that teachers are starting to come around to the idea that "assessment" is not the same thing as "testing" and that the basis of a good RtI program is formative assessment.

  4. I love to seize any opportunity I can to provide staff development in the area of assessment. However, I derive joy when many think that the discussion will center on summative assessment. I really have very little to provide my teams in regards to cutting edge test or quiz development. In fact, I think that market has been tapped. However, the idea of formative assessment is still so young, the potential has yet to be truly harnessed.

    In my last district we received ongoing training from a wonderful staff developer named Carol Commodore (spelling could be wrong). Carol had an amazing way for describing formative assessment. She likened it to a state fair in which a person is showing a prize winning pig. Summative assessment is akin to weighing the pig and she felt that a pig doesn't get fatter by weighing it.

    A person who has a knack for formative assessment technically has no need to use summative assessment because they would know the progress of their student time and time again. In fact, the best summative assessment for a teacher who excels at formative assessment is to simply ask the student to apply the new set of skills they recently learned, and that would never come through the usage of a quiz or test.

  5. Understanding how to use and integrate formative assessment into daily instructional practice is crucial to improving student learning and achievement. Friday afternoon I had an opportunity to sit with a group of staff as part of a professional development session and discuss the use, strengths and limitations of formative, benchmark and summative assessments. This was an eye opening experience, which led to some deep discussions about the importance of integrating each of type of assessment into the classroom. I listened to staff discussions and learned that many teachers are just beginning to understand the differences between these types of assessments, although most implement all three types at different times throughout the school year. Central to using formative assessment is an understanding of the purpose of this type of assessment and to learn t use assessments as a means for providing feedback to students regarding progress and expectations (not only through grades). Al too often the only person who understands the assessment and uses the information is the classroom teacher. We need to move beyond this and include students in the process of using information gained from assessments ideally leading to self-assessing and reflection.

  6. One of the most successful professional development activites I've ever engaged in involved working with our middle school staff in my former district on assessment. The teachers were given a host of activites to define as either "assessment" or "grading." They had to choose between the two. This exercise illuminated the focus we had, despite being a very progressive middle school, on the summative rather than the formative. This conversation has been central to my practice ever since. Being able to meaningfully utilize formative assessment is often what makes the difference between a good teacher and a great teacher.

    "Assessment should not merely be done to students, it should be done for students, to guide and enhance their learning (2000, online)." This was the quote we used to kick off that PD activity. If this is the case, if every expert in the field trumpets the use of formative assessment, how then do we shift the public dialogue and de-emphasize the summative? How do we put testing in its place (and there is a place for it? How can we give formative assessment its due? It's all about the students, and there's no better way to engage them in their own learning than telling them along the way how they're doing.

  7. I value formative assessment as a means to drive future instruction. As part of our evaluation, I meet with teachers before a formal observation to ask how they came to the lesson being presented and the direction they will be taking after the lesson has been completed. By utilizing ongoing assessment tools, we can ensure we are appropriately differentiating lessons based on student performance and effectively monitoring their progress. In addition, encouraging students to reflect on their own learning of the content is needed. I encourage self-assessment as this helps increase student independence and self-direction.

  8. I had the pleasure of seeing Rick Stiggins speak at a National Middle School Conference in 2005. He changed my life. It was then when I realized the significance of an assessment for learning classroom. It was then when I fully understood the need for a much larger formative assessment climate in my classroom. Now in an instructional leadership role, I have committed myself to encouraging the entire staff to engage in Stiggins' data/research. It is not an easy task.

    The Active Expressions for the Promethean Board have helped in this mission. I notice some staff seeing the benefits of progress monitoring and using the data they collect to their student's advantage. I see other staff highly frustrated with the time commitment to this initiative.

    Questions I have pondered all year:

    1) How do I convince someone to see the value in more formative assessment?
    2) How does someone stop seeing formative assessment (like the Fountas and Pinnell test) as a compliance issue and begin to utilize the data they receive to impact their instruction?

  9. It takes a skilled teacher to implement formative assessment effectively in the classroom. Not only that but from my observations there is a strong correlation between the number of years a teacher has been in the business and there inability to effectively implement formative assessments. This may be true for several examples but formative assessments in particular. It is difficult to leave that construct of teaching followed by assessment followed by teaching the next unit of study. To have the skill to create formative assessments and then have the patience to go back and reteach to those who need it while still keeping the other students engaged and moving forward is an art to say the least. The idea of 0% summative and 100% formative is an admirable one that I certainly endorse. In the end it is about the learning and as educators we need to put every strategy in place to promote that learning and change our classrooms to foster formative assessments.

  10. The concept of shifting the balance of summative assessment (90%) and formative assessment (10%) to only formative assessment (100%) is an exciting concept. In my current position this would be a complete overall of the assessment practices but one that is overdue. When teachers only give the long final at the end of the semester or year, it is too late to help students grow. How does the data from that summative assessment help you as the teacher or help the student? The statement that formative assessment can double student learning and that formative assessment provides the largest gains to the lowest achievers is the only rationale you need to move school and teachers in this direction. One of the hardest part of this transition is making sure that teachers create good formative assessment tools and that teachers are utilizing the data to guide instruction. The statement "Doing it right and using it well" sums up the importance of strong formative assessments.

  11. Instilling the beliefs and values of formative assessment, in addition to, building the capacity of stakeholders to appropriately implement and utilize it are so key in education today. School leaders must be able to assist staff, students, and parents in navigating the learning curve associated with the tenets related to formative assessment. With that said, I really appreciate the questions you ask our teams to consider. These really get to the heart of the issue with assessment and, as a leader, one can get a very good understanding of where groups are personally and professionally based upon their answers to them. The highlights for me in the questions are the fact that formative assessment can "build student confidence" and that feedback must be "descriptive (versus judgmental)." These two statements, in my opinion, provide the necessary 'hook' to gain buy-in and should act as a constant reminder of how and why staff members need to implement the use of formative assessment and associated feedback. It truly is 'for' student learning and is clearly met with improved outcomes for kids.

  12. I am impressed by the comments of my professional colleagues regarding formative assessment. While I might not be the person who has all of the answers about assessment practices in our classrooms, I do have a few thoughts that could help us to move formative assessments to the next level. Formative assessment works because of the fact that it provides nearly instant feedback allowing students to learn and reinforce the right skills. I've heard various statistics about how long it takes for something to become a habit... the number eighteen sticks with me for some reasons. So, if we teach students a new concept in math during our class time, then we assign twenty problems for homework that evening, we have no way of knowing when that student has walked out the door whether or not they have actually learned what we asked them to learn. Even worse, they are now going to go home and "practice" what we have taught them using methods and solving problems that lead to incorrect solutions 100% of the time. The student then comes in to class the next day and has a quiz on the homework problems from the night before to "see what they have learned" and, of course the student ends up failing that quiz... we never assessed them in the first place.

    What if we went at it from in a different order? What if we taught our students a new lesson in math. Then, we have the students attempt to do a few problems with the teacher serving as a guide. This could be followed by every student in the class solving a problem on the interactive white board and keying in their answers on their remote control "clickers." As the students enter their answers, the teacher sees (in real-time) that there are four students with the incorrect answer. The teacher then could use some sort of extension activity (maybe a higher order thinking skills problem) which is completed independently by the bulk of the class while the teacher invites just those four students to the front of the classroom for an additional lesson. You would not even need to use the clickers for these four, because now the teacher is attempting to understand where the process went wrong for each of these students. Follow this up with some reteaching and practice problems to ensure that the students have learned what we asked them to and then send them on their merry way with those same twenty problems for homework. Each of the students comes in next day with their own self-assessment (scale of 1-3 with a one being "this was really a hard assignment" and a three being "I could have done this assignment in my sleep") of the work and prepared to take that same quiz we talked about in the first experience. The only difference is that the teacher has now guaranteed that every student will do well on this quiz and can quickly move on to the next step in the curriculum. Think about how powerful this could be if even one teacher in our building did this next year. Then think about the moral imperative to ensure that *every* teacher in our building does it next year. Rather instantaneously, we can transform student learning using formative assessment. Thanks for the helpful reminder about the power of formative assessment.

  13. I recently spent three days with Middle School Language Arts teachers creating curriculum maps and assessments aligned to the Common Core State Standards. We had several interesting conversation about how the common assessments that they were creating were summative in nature, but that that should not hinder them from creating and utilizing formative assessments throughout each unit to inform instruction. The teachers were excited by this notion and were encouraged that the call for new assessments was not meant to stifle their ability to formatively assess their students regularly during class.

  14. Thus, school based assessment cannot function solely as an accountability measure. Effective school teachers and leaders recognize that the skillful use of assessment can work in positive ways to benefit teacher and student learning. Assessment for learning begins when teams of teachers use classroom assessments and other information sources about student achievement in order to advance student learning. Interserver coupon