Who is Formative Assessment Really For?

By Nick Siewert

My first post on the Teaching Matters Mastery Connect pilot this year was cheekily entitled, “It's 9 AM, do you know where your students are?”

In case you missed the allusion, it paraphrases the long-running slogan of New York City's WNYW TV station, frequently recited by celebrities at the opening of the 10pm news broadcast. On its face, it served to remind parents that they needed to keep track of their children. Subliminally, it tapped into society’s broader fear that perhaps our kids were up to no good. It seems not a huge leap to equate those concerns with the concern of teachers wondering about the relative progress of their students. We’re all a little freaked out.

But perhaps we should consider rephrasing the question. Try this on: It's 10 PM, do your children know where they are? With the advent of the Common Core standards and their promise to steer students towards college and career readiness, much lip service has been paid to developing autonomous, self-directed learners: students who know where they are, know where they need to go, and know the steps they need to take to get there. Descriptions of associated student behaviors permeate documents central to teaching and learning in New York City and across the country. The first descriptor of the College and Career Ready Student proffered by the Common Core states in bold letters “They demonstrate independence." Students work “without significant scaffolding," are able to “independently discern" and write “without prompting." "More broadly, they become self-directed learners, effectively seeking out and using resources to assist them…” This sounds great. Who could object?

Similarly, Charlotte Danielson's Framework for Teaching provides multiple criteria and indicators in her descriptions of Distinguished practice that emphasize student agency and independence. Regarding the student’s role in assessment she is quite specific. For Component 1f- Designing Student Assessments, distinguished practice might include that “Students are actively involved in collecting information from formative assessments and provide input.”

Hers is not a new idea. The fundamental principle that students should become owners and consumers of their own learning data has been well researched and proven effective. And yet it is not widely practiced. We at Teaching Matters work with many teachers and teacher teams who are highly skilled in the teacher-driven uses of formative data:

  • Making immediate instructional adjustments
  • Making near future instructional adjustments
  • Making last chance instructional adjustments

But classroom environments where students regularly make their own “learning tactic adjustments” based on formative data are more rare. We aim to change this. The Mastery Connect tool provides affordances that can help teachers down this path. Teachers can conduct online polls and quizzes where students can see the results both individually and aggregated as a class instantaneously. Students can get scores from individual standards-aligned assessments immediately and reflect upon them to adjust learning tactics. Finally, the tool presents students with an individualized dashboard where each can monitor her or his progress across each assessment and in all the key learning standards.

Teachers trying to shift the classroom where these things might happen, what W. James Popham calls "an assessment informed climate,” need to navigate greater adaptive change. They need to rethink how learning expectations are presented, how to manage the transfer of responsibility for learning and how to build in the flexibility to allow assessments to drive genuine adjustments in teaching and learning strategies. None of this can happen without considerable attention to student affective learning. As Popham notes, "The success of this application of formative assessment depends upon a student’s disposition–specifically, students’ willingness to monitor the effectiveness of their own learning tactics and make adjustments when it seems necessary." In short: affect trumps cognition.

In the end, we have to see this as a noble, worthy, and desirable goal. If we cannot coach students how to take control for their own immediate learning goals, we stand little chance of building life-long, autonomous learners. But if we can, we just might earn a reprieve, however brief, from the angst of worrying so deeply about "where our children are." Or rather, we can reserve that angst for whatever the evening news serves up next.

Nick Siewert is a Senior Educational Consultant at Teaching Matters. This year, he is leading Teaching Matters’ formative assessment pilot.