Ask any educator in the classroom today what their arch nemesis is and the overwhelming majority would say “testing.” Although the term “testing” sounds very specific, it is actually quite vague. Many different forms of testing or assessment exist in education, yet much of it is lumped into high-stakes testing.
Educational researcher Rick Wormeli would compare high-stakes testing to an autopsy. There’s a lot of information to be gathered, but very little will actually benefit the individual. Still, many schools base their school performance data analysis strictly on this high-stakes autopsy. As a result, educators resent anything related to assessment, thus missing out on an incredibly valuable educational tool.
If we are comparing assessment to an autopsy, then assessment expert Doug Reeves would argue that teachers should start viewing assessments as a physical. In other words, an assessment should be a check-up on a student’s academic progress.
As focused as educators may be on over-testing in the classroom, the truth is that there is a need for more testing. The issue is not that there is assessment taking place, but rather the type of assessment that is being utilized.
Larry Ainsworth and Donald Viegut, authors on the topic of common formative assessments, agree that educators have no choice but to pay attention to large-scale assessment data, but the shift needs to move to focusing energies and time on the recurring analysis of small-scale assessments in order to meet the diverse learning needs of all students. Classrooms need to take the emphasis off of high-stakes testing and strive for a balanced assessment system built upon a mixture of formative and summative assessments.
Understanding formative assessments
In simplest terms, a formative assessment determines what level a student is “forming” knowledge. These are real-time assessments that focus on particular standards that the grade level or department are currently focusing on in their programs.
The data collected from formative assessments have much more value to a teacher than a typical state-wide exam because they identify the current strengths and weaknesses of each student with plenty of time for academic adjustments to be made. This takes the guesswork out of determining the level of mastery a student has achieved in regards to a specific skill, and it eliminates the subjectiveness that may come with informal or casual observations by educators.
Consistent use of formative assessment can close the learning gaps that occur when a teacher simply “covers” the material. This is crucial for the long-term career success of students. The Association of American Colleges and Universities compiled a list of the top 10 traits employers look for in new college graduates. The majority were related to academic strengths.
In order for students to analyze problems, write well, and understand numbers, they need a strong educational base that does not have learning gaps. Frequent assessment coupled with action based on the collected data can play a major role in the college and career readiness of all students.
Benefits of formative assessments
The best types of formative assessments are those that are developed and conducted as a team. Frequently referred to as common formative assessments, the premise is for a grade-level team or department to construct assessments together, administer them within the same time window, share the data together, and devise educational strategies collaboratively. This process removes the isolation that can occur within the classroom and allow for innovative teaching to occur.
Formative assessments are not intended to be lengthy or difficult to construct. They should not take away from precious teaching time. When used effectively, this tool can make instruction more meaningful because it will be based on the level of understanding the students currently possess. However, for this to happen, the teacher must be willing to let the data drive the instruction rather than a curriculum guide or textbook lesson plan.
Assessing for mastery
Where formative assessments determine student growth, summative assessments determine student mastery. Once a concept has been fully presented an educator must determine how well the information has been received. This is a common practice for most teachers. Educators are used to administering chapter tests, spelling quizzes, and benchmark assessments as a way to close out a learning objective.
This process of summative assessment can be limiting because it is relying strictly on pencil/paper testing as the only means of determining mastery. Not all learners thrive with this format.
Summative assessment can be anything that is used to demonstrate skill mastery. This may include laboratory experiments, portfolios, projects, artistic performances, or other skill demonstrations that may or may not include a structured written component. The goal is to assess the mastery level of a student, which may require a shift in the assessment paradigm.
Power in data
The use of a balanced assessment system in the classroom is only as powerful as the analysis of the data and the actions of the educator. Collecting student data has become a common practice in schools, but proper analysis and action based on the data is where a disconnect most frequently takes place.
Data analysis must go beyond the teacher and include the student. By allowing students to become equal partners in the educational process, they are empowered to take an active role in understanding how they learn. Students are eager to see their own educational data. This leads to stronger self-awareness, which will benefit them as they progress into a career track. No longer should we allow students to be passive recipients of information. Informing them regularly of their progress will enhance their learning and increase their ability to intervene academically on their own behalf.
Differentiated assessment should not be looked at in a negative light. Used frequently, confidently, and in a collaborative manner, assessment can change the entire educational process of a classroom and make a teacher’s lesson plans truly reflect the diversity and strengths of his or her students. Informed instruction leads to confident learners, meaningful lessons, and powerful interventions for everyone in the learning community.
Dr. Jason Perez is the head principal at Heritage Trails Elementary in Moore, Oklahoma, as well as a faculty member at Concordia University, where he teaches Master of Education in Curriculum and Instruction courses, and an adjunct faculty member at the University of Central Oklahoma, where he teaches Master of Education Administration courses.Learn More: Click to view related resources.
- Larry Ainsworth and Donald Viegut, "Common Formative Assessments: How to Connect Standards-Based Instruction and Assessment"
- "Top Ten Things Employers Look for in New College Graduates," Association of American Colleges and Universities
- Kim Bailey and Chris Jakicic, "Common Formative Assessment: A Toolkit for Professional Learning Communities at Work"
- Robert J. Marzano, "Formative Assessment and Standards-Based Grading"
- W. James Popham, "Transformative Assessment"