Following a six-hour workshop in formative assessment, a teacher walked up to her principal and asked, “So, what is it you want me to do?” Although this was not the response the principal was expecting, it is a reminder that when we design learning for teachers, expectations should be centered in three S’s to make a transformational difference in teachers’ understanding the purpose and power of formative assessment: Systematic, Sustainable and Systemic.
Systematic – What should teachers do on a minute by minute, day by day basis?
When teachers are provided with simple, low-cost, effective strategies that can be implemented before, during and after instruction, they begin to experience and understand that checking for understanding is immediate, intentional and informs next steps in instruction. I always tell teachers at the beginning of a workshop that they will learn something today that they will be able to use tomorrow with their students. With that said, the learning begins with the teachers holding me accountable for honoring their need for strategies that are low-prep and highly effective for revealing where students are in their learning. These strategies are printed on a yellow sheet of paper called, “The Yellow Tool Sheet” and are examples of what to do in the classroom to replace worksheets and the ever-present expectation of grading.
There is nothing novel about this list of strategies. The sequence of the formative assessment tools matches the content and objectives of the workshop. They are listed in the order the strategies are experienced as the principles of formative assessment are taught. The tools are used to assess the participants’ understanding of the concepts as the learning progresses toward our workshop objectives. Teachers experience how the content and pace changes based on their needs.
Teachers experience each of the strategies, reflect on them with their peers for applicability to their content/grade level and adapt or adopt the strategy to their practice through reflective notebooks. The content is about formative assessment but teachers are witnessing simultaneously how checking for understanding is designed -what it looks like-what it feels like.
By the time the teachers leave the learning, there should be no question about what strategies to begin with as well as how they can expand their repertoire on a daily basis. Many of the strategies listed are not new, First Word/Last Word, I Used to Think…But Now I Know, Chain Notes, etc. There is a shift in the teachers’ mindset as they see the strategies are not just activities but are essential for revealing what students know and don’t know as a learning target is mastered.
A disconnect teachers often make is how they define formative assessment. Frequently I hear incorrectly that formative assessment is a “a test,” or “a difficult and time-consuming process,” or something that is a “requirement of the campus or district.” But, once the teachers see the strategies modeled, their working definition begins to change. Videos of students and teachers using the strategies are incorporated with the learning of the strategies. Gradually, the teachers see and experience that formative assessment is a frequent and fluid process that answers their initial question, “What do you want me to do?” with a changed perspective and working definition.
Systemic - How does formative assessment align with my campus/district beliefs and practices?
Knowing what to do is one indicator for understanding formative assessment but equally important is knowing how it aligns with the beliefs of the organization, the curriculum and the focus on best practices K-12. In addition, PLC expectations for regularly studying student data, critiquing student work and planning instruction, creates systems for strong implementation in formative assessment. Continued accountability for implementing formative assessment is provided with feedback on walk throughs and expectations for embedding formative assessment throughout lessons rather than always at the end of a lesson with an exit ticket. As systemic implementation of formative assessment occurs, teachers will correctly continue to question; “How is my professional learning matching the expectations of leadership in formative assessment?”, “How is formative assessment embedded in my curriculum?”, “Do the grading and pacing expectations permit formative assessment?”.
Where there are disconnects in the alignment of beliefs with practice, teachers commitment to long-term implementation will wane. Just as some teachers ask, “What do you want me to do?”, other teachers will appropriately seek answers as to how formative assessment fits with current beliefs and expectations of the campus/district. Successful implementation of formative assessment requires systemic commitment and a belief that matches the plan for implementing the principles and practices in formative assessment throughout the organization.
Sustainable – Why should I put effort into implementing formative assessment and believe in it?
The empirical data from Nyquist (2003) Allal & Lopez (2005), Koller (2005), Brookhart (2007), Kingston & Nash (2011, 2015) is clear that formative assessment makes a significant difference in student achievement. In fact, Black & Wiliam found that students taught by teachers who used assessment for learning achieved in six or seven months that would have otherwise taken a year. Formative assessment implemented with fidelity ensures student progress. This is why teachers need research data to ensure their due diligence as the implementation will assuredly bring highs, or successes, and lows, or obstacles, that naturally occur with the implementation curve. Carefully designed professional learning is necessary to provide adequate treatment time, ongoing student examples of progress, and protocols that provide teachers opportunities to share successes, problem solve student miscues and design next steps for instruction with support.
In our formative assessment learn-do model, we have created three learning segments for teachers.
Part 1 has teachers experience and take back formative assessment tools to their classroom that provide immediate feedback for the teachers and students. As Doug Reeves reminds us, teachers need immediate success for the momentum of the new strategies and thinking to take hold.
In Part 2, teachers return with student examples of the formative assessment tools they used as an integral part of accountability for applying their learning from part 1.
A Success Analysis protocol to celebrate and uncover why the work was successful is used with teachers in like grade/content areas. Part 2 also has teachers design a lesson using formative assessment strategies embedded throughout the learning in collaborative groups.
When teachers return for Part 3 the next layer of accountability is evident as each teacher returns with student work examples/assessments from the lesson(s) they designed and taught. The student work brought to the learning gives evidence of how the teacher modified and expanded the students’ learning as a result of the data they collected. Teachers share in multi-grade groups as they use the Data Analysis Protocol to underscore that the principles and tools of formative assessment are applicable K-12. There are always ah-ha moments with this eclectic grouping when a third grade teacher shares examples from the ABC or Visual Synectics strategy only to find that their Pre AP Algebra colleague sitting in the same group used the identical technique(s). The applicability of formative assessment K-12 is instant and the systemic connections become relevant and strong.
When teachers ask, ”What do you want me to do?” “Why are we learning about formative assessment?” “How will it support student success?,” they are asking for the why, what and how of formative assessment. A professional learning response that enables teachers to learn the purpose and power of formative assessment along with tools to use with students and colleagues for collaboration, ensures a Systematic, Systemic and Sustainable implementation of formative assessment.
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