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Formative assessment strategies for success

During a recent eSchool News webinar, experts revealed how formative assessment can support the curriculum

A key takeaway was that formative assessment is a process, and not a “one moment in time” event.

How can formative assessment be used to support the curriculum? This was the subject of a recent webinar sponsored by SunGard K-12 Education, during which two experts revealed their strategies for success.

The panelists were John Phillipo, founder and executive director of the Center for Educational Leadership and Technology, and Bethany Silver, director of assessment, evaluation, and research for the Bloomfield, Conn., schools.

Moderating the discussion was Joel Hames, director of product management for SunGard.

Here’s a partial transcript of the event; to experience the full archived version, click here.

Joel: One of the things I think we need to take away from this is that formative assessment is a process. Those of you who have been practicing for a while probably know this intuitively. It’s really a process, and not a “one moment in time” event that occurs.

There are four primary attributes of this process. It begins with clarifying the intended learning—describing your learning targets in student-friendly language. We then move to eliciting evidence, and this isn’t just paper-and-pen tests—it’s all the obtrusive and unobtrusive pieces that you take on or interactions you have with students.

After we elicit the evidence we need to interpret it, understand what it means in the context of that student’s experience and the learning target itself. And then finally, acting on that evidence: How do you move the student forward? What kind of feedback are you giving?

The first question I have for our panelists is, how can formative assessment be effectively integrated into the classroom?

Bethany: We have a regular system of curriculum monitoring using a walkthrough process for each of our schools, where we look at the implementation of our curriculum. And I’m part of the team that has designed our teacher evaluation system—so we have two tools in place in our district that we use to look at what’s happening in our classrooms.

One of the first things we do in our walkthrough process is to determine whether the intended learning has been clarified. We’re looking for obvious things like a learning objective posted on the board, or some evidence that the students can refer to where they understand the intent of the instruction.

As we’re in the classroom, we’re looking for the teacher to use a variety of questioning strategies and focused observations, really intensely engaging with students, monitoring their comprehension. Is the teacher eliciting evidence? And it’s not only the teacher—it could also be peer groups or work groups. [We want to see] that students are entirely present with the content, with one another, and are engaged in the learning process.

Formative assessment is kind of the air we breathe in a classroom that’s active, that’s engaged, and where students are learning effectively.

Joel: You describe a great environment where it’s embedded at the school or district level. What are your thoughts on a teacher who is in a school where there isn’t that kind of larger structure in place? Can they still be successful?

Bethany: That’s a great question. There are lots of resources out there that can support you, and we can always find people to talk to who have common interests with us in our schools. Even having one person come into your classroom and coach you—it’s certainly a next step if you don’t have a rich environment where the structures are already in place.

John: A good process needs good tools. We need some type of simple, easy-to-use tool to help us with this inventory of learning. If I see evidence of effectiveness, I don’t have time to type all that in.

I worry a lot about whether teachers have those tools. I sometimes see them in the hands of those who are evaluating our teachers; I’d like to see those same tools in the hands of the teachers.

Joel: How can formative assessment be used to support the curriculum? We know that curriculum is shifting with the Common Core; how can formative assessment be used to help support that [change]?

John: [With] learning management systems, we’re able to view and align [our curriculum]. We can see on a screen what [a] student needs. I can see the formative assessment result, the instructional strategies and resources.

When we’re able to use the data to tweak that curriculum, then we’re making the curriculum useful and visible, and not just [a static document].

Joel: How can formative assessment be used as a teaching strategy?

Bethany: Sarah Brown Wessling, who does videos for the Teaching Channel, has this great formative assessment strategy that she uses, called Text What You Learn. At the beginning of the class, students come in and use their cell phones—this is a high school class—and text in a response to a question that Ms. Brown Wessling has presented through the Poll Everywhere software.

She projects those responses on a SMART Board, and this gives students the opportunity to see what their peers have learned and self-assess. And then she takes those text messages and drops them into a word cloud generator. What this does is, it summarizes the qualitative data of all those text messages in a single visual, where Ms. Brown Wessling can lead them in a conversation about what the most common terms were. It’s really engaging for students, and it gives you really good information as a teacher on how to move forward.

If you don’t have that level of technology in your classroom, you can do a “quick write” at the beginning of your class. Ask students to provide you with a summary of what the homework was about, or what the key point in the reading was last night. They can either hand these in to you, or you can have students share them with the person next to them—all to really understand where we need to start today’s lesson.

Joel: How can instruction be differentiated in response to formative assessment findings?

Bethany: Formative assessment is an ongoing, fluid experience [that] can help teachers understand which resources to direct to which students. When we analyze student work, [we can see] what pieces of the process students might not be understanding.

Formative assessment is a spontaneous, on-the-fly process, as long as you’ve done your preparation ahead of time—you know the content that you’re going to cover, and you have an understanding of the progression you want your students to make.

Joel: What types of formative assessment are most effective for assessing student understanding and nurturing retention?

John: I want to address not what are the types that are most effective, but what are the elements of a good formative assessment system.

[One thing] I would look for is [a system] that helps us effectively communicate the same information in a consistent and easy format to students, teachers, parents, and administrators in real time.

We have this odd situation in education, where the same information is described differently to those different audiences. I think formative assessment really gives us a framework to change that.

To hear the entire conversation, you can access the archived version of the webinar here.

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