Jun 13

Applications of Formative Assessment

At our final OMSP leadership meeting we read a little bit of W. James Popham’s book Transformative Assessment in Action: An Inside Look at Applying the Process to discuss. We first came up with our own definitions of formative assessment. I thought my team did pretty well. I mean, here we all are, teacher leaders working with our PLCs using common formative assessments and reviewing student work to make changes to improve the opportunities we offer our students for learning Math and Science. And some of us have been doing this for years. Popham speaks to his definition of formative assessment from his 2008 book, Transformative Assessment:

Formative assessment is a planned process in which assessment-elicited evidence of students’ status is used by teachers to adjust their ongoing instructional procedures or by students to adjust their current learning tactics. (p. 6)

Then Popham says,

If I had to choose the single, most important thing I hope readers would have learned from TA1, it would be this definition, stressing that formative assessment is a process, not a test, and a process that’s carefully planned. In this process, assessments, both formal and informal, supply the evidence about “where students currently are” so that teachers and students can figure out how to reduce the gap between where students currently are and where those students should be when instruction wraps up.

My team was surprised to find out the part we left out of our definition was the planned part. Ouch. Of course formative assessments have to be carefully planned because teachers are helping students determine their next steps. I won’t forget THAT any time soon. 🙂 What we did know is one thing that formative assessment is not:

Formative assessment is not a collection of “interim tests” administered periodically to all students in a school or district. Such interim tests may be called “formative,” but labeling them as such does not automatically make those tests what commercial vendors have chosen to call them.

Of course here’s the other part that I need to remember that formative assessment is not:

Nor is formative assessment what takes place when teachers make an instructional adjustment in response to “sensing” student confusion or by inferring it, based on a classroom full of puzzled faces or abuzz with atypical murmuring. Yes, after an apparent instructional misfire, a sensible teacher will regroup and try another sort of explanation. That’s good teaching, and it’s something that all teachers should do. But it is not formative assessment – because there’s no planning, no assessment – elicited evidence, and no prior thought on the teacher’s part about what sort of instructional adjustments might work to set the lesson to rights. Being responsive to students’ reactions makes all sorts of pedagogical sense, but teachers who point to this kind of sound practice as proof that they are “already doing formative assessment” are mistaken.

Okay, thanks, burst my bubble! If there’s one thing I’ve learned these past years of working with my Science PLC is that the work we do is purposefully using formative assessment. In this country where teachers are lucky to get 50 minutes of planning a day and rarely is that period shared with anyone in your team (and when it is it’s so short that we don’t even use much of it to work collaboratively), the only times we get to plan purposefully and work collaboratively are when there are funds to make it possible for us to meet and work together. I only wish all teachers were lucky enough to get the chance to work like this, collaboratively with a team to plan lessons, implement them, then analyze how the lessons worked to make necessary adjustments for their students. This type of work takes time and often takes money. Why money? Because it’s not fair to ask teachers to work a full day with students and then have to meet and work with their teams after school or on weekends. If the only time the work can be done is during the school day that takes money to pay for the substitutes. If the school has shortened days on a regular basis, like one day a week, that time can be used for this type of work as well. Is anyone doing this work another way? For cheap or for free?

Sorry, I had to rant about the importance of giving teachers time to work together to improve student learning. Another part of our brief reading of Transformative Assessment in Action that I found notable was Popham’s applications of formative assessment. Popham listed five potential applications:

  1. To make immediate instructional adjustment.
    • This is where the teacher gathers data, analyzes it, and decides whether or not to change instruction right then in that class session. (IMHO this one sounds a lot like what Popham pointed out is NOT formative assessment because of the lack of planning. This is a mighty close one.)
  2. To make a near-future instructional adjustment.
    • This is where the teacher’s adjustments happen within the next few class sessions.
  3. To make a last-chance instructional adjustment.
    • This is where the teacher’s adjustment happens before the summative assessment as the end of a unit but while there is still time to implement the adjustment. (This one sounds like there needs to be a scheduled conclusion to a unit of study.)
  4. To make a learning tactic adjustment.
    • This application is for the “purpose of enabling students to use assessment evidence to monitor their own progress and decide whether they need to change the manner in which they’re attempting to learn.” And Popham states, “Although this fourth application of formative assessment revolves around what students do, the teacher’s role is significant. It’s the teacher who establishes the expectation and the conditions so that each student can monitor his or her own learning progress and decide whether or not to make a learning tactic adjustment.” This is how we empower students to become life-long learners.
  5. To promote a classroom climate shift.
    • This application “works to make a wholesale, teacher-led change in the ‘learning atmosphere’ of a classroom, shifting that atmosphere from a traditional, often competitive orientation to a more learning-for-all orientation.”

Popham says that such a shift in classroom climate typically results from three changes:

  1. A change in learning expectations.
    • Learning is likely for all students irrespective of how “smart” they are.
  2. A change in the locus of responsibility for learning.
    • Students should bear significant responsibility for their own learning and for the learning of their classmates.
  3. A change in the role of classroom assessment.
    • Classroom assessments are not for making grade-determining comparisons (the majority of tests should not be graded at all) or to motivate students to study harder. Classroom assessments should be used by teachers as the means to gather evidence necessary to inform instructional adjustments and by students as the means to gather evidence to make learning tactic adjustments.

Popham describes this fifth application of formative assessment as the “consummate implementation of the process that will secure maximum instructional mileage.” This is the change I have been so focused on. This is where I believe we will see the most benefits for our students. But in order to promote this shift in class climate Popham says that we need “to employ at least one or more teacher-focused and one or more student-focused application of formative assessment. Promoting the three significant changes in classroom climate identified above requires a total, no-holds-barred effort.” That says it all right there. I think I might just have to add this book to my summer reading!

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  1. I’m sorry but I get the feeling that Mr. Popham hasn’t spent a lot of time in the classroom lately. I have four preps, next year five, and I am supposed to “plan” my formative assessment on top of collecting data and analyzing it? If me, checking up informally on my student’s understanding after getting a classroom full of blank looks doesn’t count as “formative assessment” so be it, but it does count. And saying that “Being responsive to students’ reactions makes all sorts of pedagogical sense, but teachers who point to this kind of sound practice as proof that they are “already doing formative assessment” are mistaken,” who gives a you know what?
    I think if all teachers could get useful training in the “non-formative” formative assessments they would be better teachers and they would be more likely to use them then if they feel like they have to do it “right.” Like the saying goes “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” Excuse my rant, but I certainly understand yours. Todd

  2. No worries, Todd, I totally get your rant. 😮 That’s the point I was trying to make. We cannot possibly be expected to do all we and be purposeful in planning formative assessments without one of two things, more planning or sub time to do the work. If I had half my work day to plan and the other half to teach, I think I plan for of Popham’s formative assessments! Otherwise, I’m sure glad we get PLC time to do some of this.

    • Diane Lauer on June 28, 2011 at 2:44 pm

    I am reading this book with a team of educator’s too – and I appreciate your post/summary/reflection. I’m not certain Popham says we need to do this for everything – in fact, there is a part in his book where he talks about prioritization of the learning targets (curricular aim). The gist that I get from him is take the time to break down the curricular target (big idea) into smaller key chunks – that you are going to intentionally collect evidence about from your teaching. Use these assessments to adjust your instruction. Popham doesn’t say that making classroom modifications because of what you gather from student eye contact, posture, and so forth is unimportnt – in fact he says it is important – its just not formative assessment, in his opinion. Finally, time must be given to teachers for this to happen!!! You are so right on about that – to expect to do this work without having time is just wrong 😉

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