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By Winsome Waite, PhD
It was a difficult case, but one I am sure school district leaders across the country know all too well. Despite the best efforts of its staff, one specific demographically diverse middle school—full of bright, spirited adolescents—struggled to meet expectations on its state summative assessments. And I, a district instructional specialist, was tasked with turning this around. As a former classroom teacher, I remembered the extensive support I received in building and using formative assessments in my classroom, and the difference they made in my own practice and on student learning. I embraced the task at hand and worked with the middle school’s principal and leadership team to help their educators better understand how the approach to assessing for learning could work as a key school improvement strategy.
The effort was not without challenges, such as those experienced by seventh-grade science teacher Mrs. Homes. Her instructional approach was straightforward with an unrelenting focus on content, textbook assignments, and end-of-unit exams. She held students’ feet to the fire and they either kept up or failed. But through a steady coaching process, Mrs. Homes moved from this more traditional approach to one that integrated more ongoing formative assessments within her lessons. She began releasing more time for students to complete tasks and receive feedback to improve their learning, while at the same time, giving her important information about what she needed to do to improve student outcomes. As the classroom activities changed from teacher-directed to student- and teacher-directed, students were immersed in their own learning, demonstrating concepts to their peers in the class while Mrs. Homes facilitated an engaging learning process.
What was evident in Mrs. Homes’ class was that students became more interested in learning; they actively participated in activities, and the instruction became more closely tied to assessment results. This effort was catching on across other classrooms in this secondary school, and it helped to change the culture of the school to one that embraced assessments for learning as an integral part of teaching and learning.
What Are Assessments for Learning?
One type of assessment, assessing for learning, is the formative assessment that assesses student learning in the moment, such as what is outlined in this report. Formative assessments are not final evaluations of learning; they are assessments that provide teachers with information necessary to modify activities to improve student achievement. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) encourages the use of formative assessments as part of a balanced student assessment system. It also encourages capacity-building for local educators as they design their own formative assessments as part of a systemic approach to promote student learning through timely targeted feedback and support.
Traditionally, summative assessments in education (e.g., end-of-unit exam, standardized test, final project) are viewed as high stakes and somewhat rigid; students may reluctantly take them and educators can feel anxious about administering them. By contrast, formative assessments, once well understood and incorporated into classroom practice, help teachers assess learning in a way that naturally supports learning. These assessments range from teacher and peer feedback, probing questions, work-sample analyses, surveys, and teacher observations used to inform instructional decision making and resource allocation. Formative assessments are dynamic in nature and offer a fluid, more seamless integration of curriculum, instruction, and assessment – more likely than summative assessments alone to strengthen student engagement and improve learning.
Benefits of Assessments for Learning
The entire school district benefits when formative assessment practices are systemic; where structures and supports are in place that allow educators to use them consistently; and where educators and leaders use the information collected to support teaching and learning at the classroom, school, and district levels.
When each level of a school system engages in an initiative and works toward the same goals, there is more focus and targeted support and resources. District-level leaders can implement systemic practices and policies that allow for both system-level formative assessments, such as quarterly benchmark assessments and content area tasks, and the more flexible approaches at the school and classroom levels. Mrs. Homes, for instance, had the flexibility to change her instructional approach from one that was teacher-centered to one that is student-centered and integrated more assessments for learning within her lessons. This process better supported her students in being prepared for the district and state level exams.
Challenges in Designing and Implementing High-Quality Assessments for Learning
Shifting to a system that uses formative assessments thoughtfully can prove challenging for some districts since schools vary in their capacity to implement new approaches. But district leaders can overcome this hurdle by allocating resources for professional development, sample assessments, data sharing mechanisms, and district-level coaching or other system-level support for all schools. Similarly, formative assessments may be unfamiliar to some school leaders or teachers since traditional understandings of assessments have centered on summative tools. In this case, district and school leaders can encourage and incentivize efforts to assess for learning, elevate best practices within professional development and district-level communication, and encourage resource sharing. Meanwhile, limited time and resources may discourage some teachers from embracing formative assessments. For instance, some teachers have only forty-five minutes a day with a given group of students and feel the need to use this time to deliver content. District and school leaders can overcome time constraints by developing longer periods or block schedules that provide both more time. Additionally, the district can provide units of study that integrate formative assessments in them, as well as create vetted assessment-item banks to which teachers can contribute and from which they can draw for their classes.
It takes a deliberate approach to change mindsets about assessments in education. To many, the word assessment means a test, a grade, the last chance to show what students know. A school district has a great opportunity to turn this thinking around and help its leaders, teachers, parents, and students understand that assessments for learning are beneficial and necessary for learning. Assessing for learning sends the message that there are new and different ways of learning and different types of support and interventions, and that growth in learning is a necessary means to a successful summative assessment.
Winsome Waite, PhD, is vice president of practice at the Alliance for Excellent Education. The Alliance for Excellent Education (All4Ed) is a Washington, DC–based national policy, practice, and advocacy organization dedicated to ensuring that all students, particularly those underperforming and those historically underserved, graduate from high school ready for success in college, a career, and citizenship. www.all4ed.org