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By Natalie Hedden
Schools often consult outside experts to help them enhance their curriculum or improve student outcomes, using the latest and greatest assessment tools in hopes of seeing a difference in student outcomes. But there is an easily accessible support available to teachers that taps resources sitting right in their classrooms—their students. Students are the most powerful force a teacher can use to improve formative assessments. While student voice in school manifests in many ways, in this blog post on formative assessments, student voice generally involves integration of student perspective and input in development of school-level formative assessments. As Rowan County (Kentucky) Senior High School student Madison Ortega points out, “school is, for many of us, the biggest part of our lives. It takes up the majority of our time and it ends up being something we can take a lot of pride in. Being able to come into our classrooms every day, knowing that we are respected and valued, is an important part of that.”
Leveraging Student Voice to Create Meaningful Formative Assessments
Incorporating student feedback and advice in development and implementation of formative assessments fosters positive attitudes and buy-in and motivates students to participate in assessments. In a 2004 study of students at Whitman High School in California, Dana Mitra, professor of education at Penn State University, shows that when schools provide students with a platform to speak up, they acquire a greater sense of agency in their education, a better internal sense of competency, and greater feelings of community and belonging among peers and teachers.
Students know when they understand certain concepts (and when they do not). Part of the teacher’s role is to help students identify learning strategies, study habits, and assessment practices that work best for them so they can use them going forward and become more self-directed as learners. By interacting with students in developing assessments, teachers ensure that their lesson units and related embedded assessments serve students’ needs. Students provide input and feedback about specific assessment strategies (e.g., use of rubrics, checklists, vocabulary banks) and elements necessary to create a conducive learning environment (e.g., seating arrangement, snacks, lighting) that they feel empower and engage them in taking the assessments.
How Can Teachers Elevate Student Voice to Enhance Formative Assessments?
Teachers can solicit feedback when designing and administering assessments through a variety of ways, such as surveys, class discussion, and anonymous exit slips, to learn what works well for students and what types of assessments would benefit them. By engaging in more developed feedback models, teachers provide students with greater opportunities to use their voice. For example, when a teacher returns an assignment, test, quiz, or other assessment to a student, the teacher can provide a prompt where the student responds to the teacher’s comments and asks for further clarity, if needed. This allows the student to revise and improve upon the assignment in a way that enhances the learning. Students are continuously learning from instructional experiences and assessments that are aligned with them by re-engaging with content and concepts—not only for building a deeper level of understanding but also for recognizing different strategies and supports that are helpful to them in the learning process. The teacher benefits professionally by building a repertoire of strategies for individualizing learning and by utilizing a broader set of resources to support different types of student needs. More importantly, both teachers and students build strong relationships with one another, as each student’s needs are met on an individualized and personalized basis.
When students have multiple opportunities to analyze and revise a written assessment, attempt an algebra problem, or complete a science experiment, they build new skills, concepts, and content necessary to understand and fulfill learning standards more deeply. English Professor Dan Baumgardt at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) speaks to the power of this method personally with his use of scaffolded revisions in his classroom. Baumgardt notes that his students “found these assignments exciting learning experiences. They appreciated the fact that they could work on improving the same set of skills with every assignment,” he writes for CMU’s Eberly Center.
Knowing that a single assignment will not define them, students are more willing to take academic risks. When students have time, space, resources, and support to understand and reflect on assessments they take, they identify their strengths and areas where they need to improve. Engaging student voice in classroom assessments also can improve school- and district-level formative assessments. Insights that teachers gather within a classroom contribute to school-level data and information that district leaders can consult when designing and executing system level formative assessments, creating a systematic feedback loop.
Despite evidence that supports student voice in formative assessments, many teachers and administrators have not yet changed institutional practices to incorporate student voice more deliberately. In my experience as a high school student four years ago, my voice was not sought to contribute to development and implementation of assessments. Many of my college peers who graduated from high school more recently echo the same sentiment. While many teachers and administrators recognize the power and impact of student-informed assessments, such practices still are not the norm.
Teachers, administrators, and parents commonly invoke the mantra that schools are “for the students,” but traditional assessment approaches often exclude students from the equation. Integrating student voice into the assessment process requires schoolwide and district-supported changes to create a long-term and wide-reaching impact on student performance. Empowering students to use their voices is an opportunity for learning. In a blog post for the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), Angela Maiers, founder of Choose2Matter, aptly points out that “many people, including teachers, think that students are future problem solvers …. This diminishes their full capacity to contribute today.”
Natalie Hedden is a political science student at American University and an intern at the Alliance for Excellent Education (All4Ed). Winsome Waite, PhD, vice president for practice at All4Ed, also contributed to this blog post. 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