Educators are using benchmarks, projects, essay’s and unit exams to measure student progress towards meeting standards and to influence decisions in their planning process, as they should.
The problem, however, is that formative assessment has become synonymous with summative assessment methods.
As a result, we are missing the data that measures progress towards meeting lesson objectives, and influencing immediate decisions within instruction.
We’ve lost sight of what data-driven instruction means. We’ve lost sight of what formative assessment is and what it looks like in the classroom.
We know that formative assessment involves data collection, but it is important to note that these two terms are not interchangeable. While data collection is an initial aspect of formative assessment, it is the subsequent instructional decisions that truly define it. And as a result, it plays a crucial role in driving our decision-making process.
Throughout my tenure of consulting in various school districts and states, I have observed teachers at the classroom level genuinely strive to collect data with good intentions. They administer data-driven exams, recognizing the importance of using the information to inform their planning decisions. They are valuable for educators to refine their curriculum and unit maps, as they so clearly measure progress towards meeting state standards.
However, these methods do not effectively inform the decision-making process during actual instruction.
Planning and instruction are not the same.
The misconception of formative assessment is happening nation-wide. Casey Watts, an independent consultant in Texas, has similar observations, citing that, “There are significant misconceptions about formative versus summative assessments that lead to only a limited scope of students’ abilities and growth as learners. The term assessment is almost automatically equated with tests. This limits teachers’ abilities to differentiate and individualize instruction for each unique learner.”
School leaders should really be the ones analyzing and using summative performance. Yes, they evidence individual student proficiency that can be used at the classroom level, but they more importantly, offer a comprehensive overview of school-wide student performance in relation to meeting district goals and standards. Such data collection methods also inform school leaders about the effectiveness of their teachers and whether their own formal teacher observations are aligning with student outcomes.
So , why aren’t teachers implementing formative assessment methods with fidelity?
I want to be clear. It’s not that educators aren’t collecting data. It’s that they aren’t collecting data within their instruction. And they aren’t collecting data within their instruction because they don’t know how.
Teachers possess the knowledge of collecting data during formal performance tests, but this process greatly differs from managing a classroom full of students and assessing their real-time understanding. Analyzing, organizing, and utilizing that information within a lesson is an entirely separate challenge.
It is understandable, and I empathize with them. Having been a teacher myself for a decade, I can attest that preservice training did not explicitly, nor thoroughly, address data collection and formative assessment.
Nonetheless, teachers do have some responsibility here. Pre-packaged curriculums with pre-determined learning objectives make it easy to “teach it as you see it.” Not to mention, many of these pre-packaged plans provide standards as objectives to be mastered within a lesson or two. Not only is that an unrealistic feat, but the two (objectives and standards) are not the same.
Many teachers aren’t customizing these learning intentions to fit their students diverse learning needs. And as a result, formative assessments are not being intentionally created and productively used.
So, now what?
Well for starters, principals and district leaders need to better understand the formative assessment process, including its' purpose and its' role in instruction. It is absolutely essential that a common message is distributed across schools and within classrooms regarding best data-collection methods and when they should be used.
Second, leaders must prioritize formative assessment as an ongoing initiative. It should become a school-wide or district goal; within their Professional Learning Communities, school leaders should implement what Watt’s calls clarity cycles, so teachers and staff can collectively work toward the goal of formative assessment. Instructional leadership coach, Alissa Crabtree, elaborates, “When teachers work collaboratively to backwards design and develop success criteria that align to progressions for learning, deciding what to formatively assess becomes more impactful. It takes the guesswork out of what to monitor during a class period and strengthens collective efficacy among the Professional Learning Community.”
Ultimately, school leaders must place emphasis on formative assessment within PLC agendas, during pre and post observation meetings and when developing action plans and protocols for initiatives. Begin to build the culture where formative assessment, done with fidelity, is the expectation.
Second, seek professional development opportunities. Invest in proper training from consultants who can provide experience, expertise, and relatability to your educators.
Third, encourage collaboration and share resources. Teachers should be provided opportunities to share best practices and to gather resources and materials from their school and district leaders. Keep this in mind when creating programming for teachers, and the overall school schedule.