Friday, September 9, 2011

Formative Assessment: Ready... Set.. Action!

Walk into a high school mathematics classroom, a day or two after a major unit or chapter assessment instrument (usually called a test or quiz) and watch what happens as the assessment instrument is passed back to the students.  What do you observe?  

By now, teachers across the nation have passed back at least one and perhaps two or three such assessment instruments. The summative quiz or test usually has been scored by the teacher, has an assigned grade attached to it with some feedback, students quickly compare with other students to see who passed or failed, "You only got a D? Ha! I got a C+", the students might spend a brief moment listening as the teacher points out certain places on the exam where students should have been better prepared -  but were not ready, and then the tests are either collected or put away, as the new material for the next Chapter or Unit begins. 

No student reflection, and no student action required.

Dylan Wiliam in his 2011book, Embedded Formative Assessment, indicates that an assessment instrument such as a quiz or a test, functions formatively in the classroom to the extent that evidence about student achievement is elicited, interpreted, and used by teachers, learners, or their peers to make decisions about the next steps in instruction that are likely to be better, or better founded, than the decisions they would have made in absence of that evidence (p.43).

There are two key phrases in William’s definition: evidence about student achievement is elicited and… makes decisions about next steps. That is, teacher and students in conjunction with their peers must act on the evidence. Otherwise the formative process is empty in terms of its magnified impact on student learning.

I taught twelve years, before I finally thought about acting with my peers - creating assessments and lesson designs that would not only help my students get ready for the test (reflective work during the unit), get set (reflective study opportunities in class as they prepare for the exam), and then take action (after the exam). Like the scenario, above, I just passed back the quizzes (students could keep them), passed back the tests (I collected them right back), and moved on to the next Unit. There was no required student action, on the evidence collected from the assessment instruments used in class.  

Why did it take me so long to understand the power of the student assessment and learning research revealed in Wiliam's definition?

To some extent I had a limited mindset regarding the purpose of the assessment instruments (quizzes and tests) I was writing and using. My only purpose was to hold students accountable to the learning of the unit, and to assign grades. The idea that an assessment instrument such as a quiz or test could be used primarily as a reflective/goal setting tool to help students self-focus on areas of improvement,  just wasn't in my scope of understanding.  

But now it is. And I have no excuse not to shift my mindset. 
And so it is too, for the teachers and more importantly the PLC teacher teams, in Phoenix Union HSD. In 2011-2012, the PUHSD mathematics PLC teacher teams, are learning from one another across the district. There are several high school programs and PLC teacher teams demonstrating evidence of student achievement blowing past the barriers limiting significant improvement. In every case, the students are provided opportunities to take action on all assessment instruments before and after quizzes or tests are given - both in preparation for major student assessments and after the assessments. Every assessment is viewed as a student opportunity to learn from mistakes and errors - a motivator to keep trying and learning.   

The students are learning that they do not primarily take the test to get a grade. At best that is a secondary consideration. They primarily take the quiz or test, in order to self-determine areas of strength and weakness, and to focus the action they will take for future learning. How? 

Every high school mathematics PLC teacher team in the district has committed to using the the following assessment process: 

1) Write and design Unit (or Chapter) quiz and test instruments together. 
2) Agree upon the scoring rubrics to be used to grade the exams. 
3) Grade a sampling of student papers together to ensure inter-rater reliability and improved accuracy of the feedback and the grades assigned students.  
4) Create a student reflective worksheet, and require this worksheet be completed as part of the student self-reflection and goal setting process when a quiz (click here for a sample) or test (click here for a sample) is handed back to the student. 
5) Provide specific student practice action materials (worksheets), for the learning targets self-identified as  in need of continuos student focus. That is, provide a venue for the student to do more than just make a decision about what they do or don't know, but to take some type of action to get better. for some great samples, go to the Stevenson HSD Algebra 1 website. 

Thus, the Assessment instrument will no longer be the "End" but it will become the middle of a Teaching - Assessing- Learning never ending cycle for students and for teachers.  My colleagues and I are working on this idea and I will share it later this year in more detail, further down the road. 

In the meantime three cheers for the PLC teacher teams in Phoenix Union. It is courageous to step out of their comfort zone and commit holistically to the new mindset about the primary reason why they give quizzes and tests to their students. In November we all  meet together for the professional development of one another. And the teacher teams will share their stories and their artifacts - the success and the failures - the reality of implementation of a new idea is always messy, right? 
 Let's all cheer them on! 

1 comment:

  1. Bravo to Phoenix Union teachers! Students need more of these "common sense" approaches to learning. And, what better way to "celebrate our failures" and use them as bridges to true mastery. I especially like the focus on strengths, weaknesses and preparing for success.