Friday, August 19, 2011

What is and what is not formative assessments

About 5 years ago, I sat in a professional development training at Sarasota Middle School and was literally scolded by an administrator in the district on how we were using assessments incorrectly. I had been applying and receiving grants for about a year at that point, and I always filled in the formative and summative assessment portions just fine apparently. But, I don't think I actually understood the VALUE of a formative assessment until later. Much, much later.

So what is a formative assessment? It's many things really, but the main purpose of a formative assessment is for teachers to modify and validate their instruction. It provides us teachers with information during the learning process, before the unit or lesson is over. We as educators are supposed to use formative assessments to improve our instruction; it's not supposed to make our jobs "easier". If anything, formative assessments help us hone in and fine tune what it is we want students to learn or accomplish, but yet this can in essence create more work because we have to 1) grade (or assess) more often and 2) provide feedback.

It seems that a lot of teachers miss the mark with #2. Providing meaningful feedback offers descriptive and vital information in regards to the project, the product, the lesson or the work and relates back to the learning targets or objectives. Meaningful feedback focuses on the learning objectives, lists or identifies student strengths as well as what needs improvement.

When I think about feedback, I think about how a volleyball player will ask me what they need to do to improve their serve reception or what they need to work on in order to be a better blocker - I start with what they do well (focus on the positives), then I discuss what they need to do to improve and then we talk about a plan of action (what she can do to improve). Obviously, if a player who is 5'3" could probably not become a middle hitter (never say never), so you have to be realistic with WHAT they are capable of accomplishing, as well as limiting to the plan of action to one or two skills as a time.

Here are some examples of meaningful and appropriate feedback:
  • I really like the topic you have chosen to experiment on; your hypothesis needs improvement because it's an explanation. Remember, we write our hypothesis in an "If" and "then" statement.
  • Nice description of how viruses and bacteria are similar but try to also include key differences in your response.
Examples of formative assessments include lab reports, observations, quizzes, class discussions, and outlines or rough drafts. A question that tends to be a little tricky is "should formative assessments be graded or scored?" Some people tend to lean to the side that they should never be scored based on the argument that if a formative assessment is graded, it automatically becomes a summative assessment. Others believe that some students are motivated by good grades; they need that good score to try hard because then it's worth it to them. I'd say I agree. Not all students are extrinsically motivated, but some are. And if we are given the charge of teaching and reaching ALL of our students, then periodically grading formatives is something we should do.

Utilizing formative assessments enables teachers to alter and adjust instruction in a timely fashion (before the learning process has ended) and it creates a student centered learning environment, where students take some responsibility of their own learning. Formative assessments is where the teaching and learning process blend.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Making the Cut

I know it's been awhile, but I've been rather busy...had a baby (need I say more?!), moved back to the MidWest, started a new job, started another new job and am now coaching a varsity team. I also prefer to not blog about just about anything - I like to blog about something that is significant.

Which leads to me my newest post.

As a coach, making cuts is probably the single hardest task we have to do. There really is no easy way for us to do it. As human beings, we hate feeling like we have broken kids hearts. We hate to see kids cry. But the reality is this: not everyone can make the team.

I have announced who has made the team several different ways. When I was a high school athlete, the varsity coach read off the list of kids who were to report to practice the following day. He didn't read who was cut, but rather, who was on the team. I appreciated that he wasn't cowardly and didn't just post a list up on the gym door after tryouts.

When I coached for a middle school in Florida, I was told I HAD to post a list. I hated it, but the AD was technically my boss. So I complied.

When I coached for a high school in Florida, I had to pull kids aside during drills and inform them that they didn't make the team. One on one. The kids in the drills then would see the student athlete leave in the middle of practice in tears. They would dread you calling them over.

When I started coaching back here in Ohio, I took the route of my former high school coach. I felt I owed kids the respect of reading off the list. I felt like I was able to say things like "All of the coaches are so proud of you for being here, regardless of the risks" and "We wish we could keep everyone" and "If your name is not called, don't give up. This can be looked upon as an opportunity - an opportunity to improve. Michael Jordan was cut from his JV team in high school..."

This is the 6th year I have done it this way, and this was the 1st year a parent complained. The parent was upset because she felt as if we were being cold and harsh and disrespectful. She claimed we didn't know how fragile these 15 and 16 year girls are and they needed to be told in private to avoid seeing their friends, etc. And the kicker - her kids didn't even know why they hadn't made the team. She requested a meeting and even though we validated her feelings and apologized for her kids feeling "worthless" (her words, not ours), there was no adequate solution because we couldn't turn back the clock and have a do-over. I usually ask parents in parent conferences when they are upset and have vented what it is they want me to do. In this situation, I wasn't going to pose that question because I knew her solution of letting her kids play on a team wasn't going to be a possibility. We thanked her for alerting us and told her we would take her complaint into consideration for next year, which was all we could do at that point.

In my head, I wanted to say, "Really? Your kids didn't know why they were cut? It's plain and simple - they weren't good enough." Now, after the initial reaction that I had in my head, I thought about providing meaningful feedback (like the type you are supposed to do with formative assessments), but how would I go about doing that? After reading the list to the kids, I asked to speak with a few of them to clarify what their roles were going to be. Let me remind you, these were kids who made the team - and when I spoke to them, all they wanted to do was leave. They don't want to be around the coaching staff; they want to go home and see their parents or talk to their friends.

I asked a few of the freshmen girls how they would prefer to be told if they made the team or not. They proceeded to tell me how they were told while in middle school for other sports. Answers ranged from being handed an envelope and being told not to open it until they got home to the coach posting the list on a website (love how we use technology to just do the exact same thing with a piece of paper).

Now, my next thought was, "Are we doing these athletes a disservice by being 'cowardly' and tip toeing around their sensitive feelings? Are we raising these kids to be wimps?" I recalled reading an article about just that: A Nation of Wimps in an online article (there is also a book by the same title). Recently, I overhead another coach say that athletes today are "soft". I heard of one team having two JV teams (an A and a B); next year then, they will have 20 seniors. Is having 2 teams allowing all kids to gain valuable playing time experience or are they leading on 20 kids that will be vying for 7 spots next year?

How are we helping them learn and develop by not allowing them to fail? Isn't there value in falling down and then getting up and dusting yourself off?

If parents constantly fight their child's battles, how is that child going to be ready for adulthood?

Are we teaching kids that if you just throw a big enough fit that you will get what you want? Excuse me for being naive, but I thought that was something most kids grew out of by the age of 4 or so.

Aren't kids supposed to learn through experience? For example, when my daughter learned how to walk, we knew she was going to fall and potentially bump her head (which she did, multiple times. And you know what, she's ok!). We knew that when we became parents, she was going to skin her knees and shut her hands in drawers. That's part of the learning process - mistakes are valuable when you learn what NOT to do.

After having a few days to ruminate, the coaching staff and I met and came to the conclusion that we would personally call each girl next year to let her know yes or no, and if no, we would provide her with the areas that she needed to improve on the most. It might be time consuming, but then they wouldn't be around their friends, they won't be embarrassed if they cry, and they can then be comforted by their parents at home right away.

So I pose this question out there to cyberspace - how would YOU like to know if you made a team? Or how would you like a coach to announce who was on the team when your child tries out in high school? How do or did you feel as a parent if your kid didn't make a team?