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.

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