Formative Assessment

29 May

My fellow faculty and I have been assigned some professional development reading from Schmoker’s Focus (highly readable, common-sense, and recommended for any educator interested in instruction and assessment).

One of the issues it raises is formative vs. summative assessment, which is a hot trend in education right now. Formative assessment is the kind that assesses where students are at (a snapshot), and summative is a comprehensive assessment of how students have mastered those skills and putting a value on that.

For example, I might spend three weeks working on essay drafts with my students, having them write and submit outlines, all the while giving them placeholder grades and/or feedback on the outlines, first, and second drafts they submit. But I would only grade and count the final draft submitted to me at that end. The drafting process is formative, the final draft summative. (This is just one way of doing formative vs. summative — I prefer not to count the formative grades and count the summative ones, but there are many models out there).

Schmoker suggests that for formative assessment to really work, you have use it as a feedback mechanism to both the student and you, the teacher. You will of course assess students’ work (in my case, rough drafts of essays) to give them feedback on how to get better, but equally as important is you, the teacher, assessing where students are at. Are they understanding your purpose and intent, the content, and the assessment goals, or not? This is key, and it’s an idea I’ve only recently begun to consider on a deep level. Schmoker insists that you should not move on until everyone in the class understands, and your formative assessment should be assessing just that.

I noticed this recently with my personal writing unit in Grade 9 English. I wanted the students to produce clear, effective, personal essays that used a lot of sensory detail to bring the writing to life. So I began with this plan:

1. Step 1 (formative assessment): In-class writing in response to college-essay-inspired prompts like: “Describe an issue, cause, or event you care about and why.”

2. Step 2 (formative assessment): Hand out the rubric and assignment sheet, and ask students to produce a rough draft two-to-three-page personal essay in response to similar prompts as one above. I give written feedback on drafts.

3. Step 3 (summative assessment): Submit final draft for grade.

Only my plan didn’t quite work out that way, because in the formative assessment process, I saw right away that I had overestimated students’ ability to shift from all the analytical writing we’d done all year to more personal, creative writing.

In Step 1, I realized that I had botched the prompts — they were too abstract and sophisticated for my freshmen. I had taken them from American college applications, thinking they were good practice for a few years down the line, but right away I saw the students were not yet old enough to grapple with their nuances. I needed to make them more grade-nine friendly. More importantly, during this Step 1 formative assessment process, I also saw that students were unsure how to approach the essay because of its format — they seemed without a compass for organizing their thoughts in an essay that didn’t fit a persuasive argument model. My fault. We had done so much analytical writing that I foolishly assumed they could just magically switch gears to personal writing; but in drafting, I saw right away that I had forgotten one of the most important steps — models.

So I changed Step 2 completely.

Instead of what I had originally planned, I found four good models of personal essays on Teen Ink, a web site devoted to essays by teenagers. I looked for models that had strong sesnory detail and had very different tones, voices, and styles. One was serious and somber; one was funny and ironic. I chose essays that were the length I wanted my students to write, and I made a packet of the four and handed them out to each student.

They had to read the packet in class, highlight any sensory detail they noticed, and choose their favorite. In pairs, they shared their favorite choices with each other, and then they shared them with the whole class. We discussed which were effective and why, and which essays had the most interesting and effective use of sensory detail.

I then handed out an amended assignment sheet with new, more specific topics, such as: “Think back to your very first day of school at our school. How did you feel? What was it like compared to now? How have you changed?” and “Describe a place that is very special to you, really setting the scene with descriptive, sensory detail. Why is it special to you?”

Then we proceeded to go through the drafting process with several rounds of editing and feedback before the planned final draft.

In short, I learned from the formative assessment as much as (or more than) the kids did. It was a great way for me to check for understanding and realize that I could not simply plow ahead as planned — I needed to back up and redesign so that their understanding would be deeper.

The result? Not sure if it was a product of the more creative assignment itself, the assessment strategy, or a combination of both, but it produced some of the best, most interesting work of the year. Many students were thrilled with their final grades — (for several students, it was the first A-range writing grade they had earned this year.)

So don’t underestimate the power of formative assessment  — for you and your students. Use it not only to give feedback to students, but also (even primarily) as a way to see where the gaps in understanding are so you can readjust accordingly, stepping in where and how as needed with new or more in-depth instruction.

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2 Responses to “Formative Assessment”

  1. Jenna F. June 1, 2012 at 4:14 am #

    Have you committed to Schmoker’s idea of not moving on until the formative assessments indicate that EVERY student “gets it”? If so, please keep us updated on how this works for you!

    Great work!

    • alexisswiggins June 2, 2012 at 3:59 pm #

      Easier said than done, of course, when you have directives from above and schoolwide curricular expectations. But I can say that several times this year I have scrapped my original plan and started anew to explain in a new way, as it was apparent that a core group of students were not grasping the material (e.g. when 15% of my students failed a grammar quiz).

      And I don’t think he’s suggesting that we don’t move on until all students achieve the same level; but I do think it’s not as hard as it seems to pause, reassess, and work more deeply with students before plowing ahead. I offered weekly extra help writing sessions this year which helped me achieve this in writing instruction so that I felt more confident that (with outside-class time), nearly all students had varying level of mastery of writing concepts, even if they all weren’t going to write A-range papers.

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