Formative Assessment in Action: How Collaborative Protocols Can Elevate Student Learning
Updated: Feb 19
Steve Ventura draws inspiration from an Oren Harari quote: "The electric light did not come from the continuous improvement of candles." Steve—whose experience spans from teacher, principal, and superintendent—has a talent for helping educators develop new practices, rather than only iterating on the old, to create the kind of environment students need in order to learn deeply for today’s world. I regularly turn to his blog and webinars for inspiration and new ideas. He kindly shares with us a blog post rethinking the traditional assessment in favor of a collaborative approach to help teachers elevate their practice and improve student learning. -Sherry St. Clair
Traditional assessments can be mislabeled as tests or quizzes, and often instill fear in students because the outcome is solely a grade. But the mere name “formative assessment” insists that its purpose is anything but grade related, and instead a tool to inform the teacher if learning has occurred. Rethinking the role of formative assessment and using the results to inform teaching practice, can transform learning for students. When taken to the next level and done collaboratively in a PLC or what I call, an Achievement Team, teachers can elevate their professional practice, learn from colleagues, and focus on what matters most in terms of student achievement.
Assessment for learning, or formative assessment, possesses the opportunity to create overwhelmingly positive outcomes because of its impact on student learning and achievement. When clearly understood and implemented with consistency, formative assessment provides numerous benefits for students and teachers, most notably, the opportunity to equip teachers with ongoing feedback that enables them to apply corrective instruction.
Formative Assessment Defined
Teachers can implement formative assessment through ongoing, short-cycle assessments to guide them in focusing on the formative effects of their teaching. This is accomplished by creating valid and reliable assessments that assist teachers in reflecting on their instructional efforts, rather than just “grading” student results.
Formative assessment should:
· Inform the practice of teachers
· Promote equity for all students
· Build the capacity of all team members in a PLC or Achievement Team
· Provide an effective strategy to determine if learning intentions have been achieved
· Offer a powerful tool to appropriate new knowledge about teaching and learning
· Encourage students to become better consumers of their own learning
It is important to differentiate between major forms of assessment that are commonly used in schools. Much has been written about the difference between formative and summative assessment, so this is designed to provide a brief synopsis of assessment options that provide different levels of interpretation.
Summative assessments are typically associated with end-of-year state testing and the results are designed to measure student proficiency as compared to a list of specific criteria, most often referred to as standards. These standardized tests are associated with a state accountability system and are not designed to provide teachers with timely information about student learning.
Interim assessments may be administered between formative and summative assessments, and they are more commonly referred to as benchmark assessments. While these assessments occur more often than summative ones, the frequency of administration is still limited. They do assist teachers with identifying concepts and skills that students are struggling to learn, but the time to correct those errors may not be suitable.
Formative assessments are considered ongoing, short-cycle assessments that provide teachers and students with timely information about student performance strengths and gaps. Additionally, they provide teachers with information about who was taught effectively and who needs more help. Finally, formative assessments help to improve teacher professional practice by providing a continuous process of gathering evidence and making inferences, all designed to attain higher levels of student achievement.
Experts Hattie and Timperley (2007) stress that the ongoing value of formative assessment has proven beneficial when it comes to informing instruction, closing achievement gaps for students, and preparing students for additional assessment.
Become an Adaptive Learning Expert
Frequent assessment is powerful as it guides the teaching and learning process and helps to create what John Hattie calls, “adaptive learning experts” (2009), (2012). According to Hattie, (Bransford et al, 2000), adaptive experts can assess student needs throughout the learning process and make necessary adaptations to help them meet worthwhile learning goals. Frequent assessment makes it possible for teachers to make instructional adjustments when needed in order to provide a successful learning experience for students. The ability to adapt plans and instruction is the critical element of formative assessment. All too often, teachers have set plans driven by dates and unit goals, instead of by student learning. Relying on formative assessment data requires educators to pivot and adjust when students are unable to show they have learned or when student assessment results show they already know the material.
But what does this look like for PLCs or Achievement Teams? The idea of adapting the learning moves beyond just the students and to the teacher. By analyzing formative assessment data, teachers can collaboratively discuss what worked and make data-based decisions about the best instructional strategies and teaching practices to implement when learning is not occurring.
Incorporating Short-Cycle Assessments
Short-cycle assessment can take on many different meanings, but for the purpose of using within a collaborative protocol, they are pre/post assessments that can be administered anywhere within a two to four week timeline. Often times they are administered before the end of a unit of instruction and they are typically not graded because of their formative purpose.
Short-cycle assessments provide initial baseline information to teachers so the results can be used to create instructional planning for individual students as well as an entire class. The results of these assessments are used to provide feedback to teachers about instructional success.
The pre-teach/re-teach model permits teachers to introduce the concepts and skills that will be assessed before the administration of the actual pre-assessment. The time of instruction prior to the first assessment can vary based on the rigor of the standard, however, a quick review may help produce accurate assessment results. Remember, if we truly want to measure whether or not our teaching is making an impact, then we can consider an assessment model that is more reflective of the instructional practices being implemented, even more so than the effort of the students.
It is important to understand this: If we assess kids, but do not give them an opportunity to revise and then re-assess (much like a first draft writing assignment) then we have wasted the power and benefit of those mistakes. Students need to know that they may not always do their best the first time around.
Achievement Teams use common formative short-cycle assessments during a pre/post assessment cycle which allows teachers to answer four focus questions:
1. What performance strengths and gaps can be identified?
2. What concepts and skills have been achieved and what still needs to be learned?
3. Which strategies had an impact on student achievement and which need to be revisited?
4. Who did we teach effectively and who needs more help?
During meetings, teacher teams use assessment data to discuss these questions, which inform next steps. Achievement Teams assessment cycles are intended to create collaboration around teacher efforts and effects, especially when they incorporate formative assessment.
When thinking about the past year and the impact of school building closures on students, it’s more important than ever before to focus on formative assessment to inform teaching and learning. With learning loss at an all-time high and instructional time at new lows due to remote and hybrid schedules, teachers need to ensure that the time spent with students has an impact and that students have truly learned and can apply their knowledge in the form of assessment.
There are a number of ways that accurate and thoughtful assessment design can improve teaching, learning, and leadership. After all, the most important aspect about formative assessment is to help determine effective instruction while monitoring student progress. Formative assessment also comes with a compelling body of evidence, including strategies that help teachers and students assess and reflect on their own teaching and learning. Moreover, those schools and districts that include formative assessment as a viable instructional strategy enjoy higher levels of student achievement and greater satisfaction about what constitutes quality instruction. It’s time for educators to embrace the positive qualities of formative assessment, as this approach offers a systemic approach that includes all learners.
Steve Ventura is the president and lead consultant at Advanced Collaborative Solutions. He is a highly motivational and knowledgeable speaker who approaches high-stakes professional development armed with practical, research-based strategies. Steve is a former elementary and secondary teacher as well as both a school and district-level administrator. Steve has published multiple books and articles, and regularly presents and keynotes at major global education events. His newest publication, Discovering Achievement Teams-The Key to Effective Collaboration (ASCD), will be available in the Fall of 2021. Connect with him at Steve@SteveVentura.com or on Twitter @smventura.
Bransford, J., Brown, A.L., Cocking, R R. (2000). How People Learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school (Expanded ed.) National Research Council (U.S.). Committee on Developments in the Science of Learning., and National Research Council (U.S.)/ Committee on Learning Research and Educational Practice.. Washington, DC. National Academy Press.
Hattie, John. (2009). Visible learning: a synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. New York, NY, Routledge.
Hattie, John. (2012). Visible learning for teachers: maximizing impact on learning. New York, NY: Routledge.
Hattie, John. & Timperley, Helen. (2007). The power of feedback. Review of Educational Research, 77 (1) 81-112.