Yesterday after a very interactive twitter chat on formative assessment (#nctechat), I met with my friend and colleague Dr. Lisa Scherff.  She has been heavily involved with the NCTE formative assessment document (she helped write it).  Yesterday we shared our experiences and thoughts on the subject.  We agreed that not only do teachers have a hard time implementing formative assessment in our data driven world, but also teachers are misinformed about what it actually is.  In fact, we have decided to create a webinar dedicated to formative assessment.  Until it is finished we want to provide you with something you can use now.  At the end of this document are links to more formative tools for many different content areas including math and science.

Here is a quick and easy way to distinguish formative and summative assessments.

Formative (Good Cop)

Summative (Bad Cop)

Low Stakes –it isn’t going to penalize a student based on score. High Stakes – students are placed, moved or retained based on score.
Usually Qualitative –the responses are written and tell a story of the student’s progress. Usually Quantitative –responses are tallied as overall scores represented by numbers.
Longitudinal/Dynamic – assessment is analyzed over time to evaluate progress. Progress is fluid not static. End/Fixed assessment is given at the end to measure what the student knows.  It is final.
Comparison is to one’s own progress. Comparison is to benchmarks/standards
Involves the student Does not involve the student

I call formative assessment the good cop because it allows for and fosters improvement, and students are more likely to take ownership of their learning when presented with formative assessments.  I call summative assessment the bad cop because too many students and teachers are penalized and demoralized over end-all-be-all tests, whether they are system-mandated tests that go with the required curriculum or high-stakes tests.

Here are just a few of the many tools teachers can use when they have the bad cop blues:

Meta Cognitive Awareness Survey – A fancy word for a way for students to rate themselves on their reading practices; it lets teachers know if their students are using effective strategies.  Here is one example question from the survey:

What do you do when you encounter a word you don’t know?

  • Use the words around it to figure it out.
  • Use a dictionary or thesaurus to look it up.
  • Ignore it temporarily and wait for clarification later.
  • Sound it out.

This survey contains roughly 10 questions.  Create an environment of respect so students will answer these questions truthfully.  Have a discussion with the class regarding which reading practices are more effective than others. Use the qualitative data from these student self-evaluations to structure and individualize instruction accordingly.

Knowledge rating chart – Students fill this out to determine their comfort level with words, concepts, problems or situations.  This can be used in EVERY content area.  Here is just one example:

Rate the following US Government terms below as follows:

  1. I’ve never heard of this before.
  2. I have heard it before but don’t really know what it is.
  3. I completely understand this and can apply it.
  • Separation of Powers ___
  • Checks and Balances ___
  • Bicameral ___
  • Legislative ___

In both of these examples the teacher is able to assess students’ comfort level with words, skill and concepts; moreover, this rating chart can be revisited after instruction to determine if students have learned the content.

What the teacher does with this information is the most important.  Sometimes we give a formative assessment and then don’t use our findings in the most effective way.  Teachers must become qualitative researchers when using formative assessment.  Don’t worry; you don’t need a Ph.D. in qualitative research.  However, there are a few qualitative approaches necessary to use formative assessment effective.

1.    Code for themes

  • Once you receive the feedback from your formative assessment, look for similarity in students’ answers.

2.    Group those themes

  • Group similar answers together. For example, you may want to make piles on the floor of similar papers.  As you separate the themes in this way, you can better decisions as how to proceed with instruction.

3.    Triangulate

  • Take three responses and see if they support each other.  This helps to reduce decisions made from outliers.  Make sure you can see that one answer supports the other.  For example, you may see in a student’s self-assessment he or she is uncomfortable with main idea.  However when you triangulate you discover it is not main idea at all but more cause and effect.

One of the best parts of formative assessment is a teacher can use this information as longitudinal data and a student can track his or her progress with reading, math, and other concepts over time.  Teachers can conduct mini conferences with students as the quarter, semester, or year goes by and both teacher and student can make decisions together based on the formative data.  It empowers the student to take control over his or her own learning.

I argue, as educators all we really need are formative assessments.  Why is K-12 education the only place where redemption is not possible?  If we go to the doctor and get a bad cholesterol report, we can go home, eat better, and go back and see if our cholesterol improved.  At a job, if we get a poor evaluation, we are usually given the chance to make changes.  Even in graduate school we are allowed to fix final papers and redo presentations gone wrong.  So why then should we be imposing summative assessments on children and teachers where no redemption is available?  If all we did was formatively assess, the world of education would be a much happier place.

Thank you to all of the University of Alabama teacher candidates for createing these amazing resources: Marlana Law, Kristopher Rollins, Kathleen Oatts, Steven Hsia, Jessica Ruiz, Darlene Atkins, Joel Stancer, Heather Lee, Paul Hinson, Michael Hallman, Rebecca Singleton, Leeann Stegall, Justin Snider, Megan Townsend.

Semantic Analysis

FCAT Self-Awareness

Anticipation Guide

Possible Sentences