Saturday, April 17, 2010

Almost Formative

Karl posted about his assessment plan going back into the classroom. Matt responded. I'm continuing the conversation here. Like anyone else I ever link to, I like their sites more.1 Go there first. Read everything. Come back.

I feel like I read this quote on Matt's site but I couldn't find it when I looked through the archives. Essentially the gist was that all conversations with teachers inevitably end up focused on the gradebook.

So here's the nit that I need to pick:

Allowing your kids to retake their tests does not automatically make it a formative assessment.

I'm not accusing Karl or Matt of making this assumption and both of them definitely understand the distinction. Along with not grading homework, this seems to be the thing that educators get hung up on as the way to call something formative. There is no single method that will make the class/teaching/assessments formative. Ungraded homework isn't formative. Retaking tests isn't formative. Exit slips, response systems, quickwrites, minute papers aren't formative. Standards-based grading isn't formative. Your entire class could consist of ungraded, infinitely retaken tests and it wouldn't be automatically formative. Formative assessment is the entire culture of your class.

What does that mean?

Your students should, at all times, be able to answer these essential questions.2
  1. Where am I going?
  2. Where am I now?
  3. How can I close the gap?
Learning goals are pretty popular and many principals make posting them mandatory. In ELA classes at least, essay exemplars and such are pretty common. I think we could all do a better job (posting learning goals is not the same as communicating them) at this but at least we pay attention to question 1.

Question 2 we also pay some attention to. Where we usually go wrong is by not framing a student's current level in terms of the ultimate learning goal. To steal a simile from a previous post, it's like looking out of the window of your car to see where you are. It's nice to know your location, but really what you want to know is where you are compared to your destination and if you're going in the right direction.

Question 3 is where most of us fail. It's certainly my weakest area.

Typical almost formative teacher statement:
You scored a 75% on Adding and Subtracting Fractions. Learn it and come back after school and I'll replace your score.
 To parallel that statement, here's what the state tells my school:
You scored a 714 on last year's API. Increase it to 800 this year. Come back in May and I'll replace your score.
We know where we're going. We have a sense of where we are in relation to that goal. We just have no frikkin' idea how to get there. Part of the problem is that, like the state of California, we have no idea what is causing the gap. We can make assumptions based on previous experiences, but we're dealing with so many students/schools it's impossible to know the specific cause of every single problem that every single student/school encounters.

The larger, and less forgivable, reason is that it's simply easier to set goals and diagnose. Helping students/schools close the gap is the hard part.  

Telling a student to go learn something, without giving him/her the proper tools to do so, is the hallmark of the almost formative teacher.

How do we solve this?

As I said, this is certainly my weakest point so I'd love to hear what you say. The first step is always awareness. If you find yourself saying, "Go learn this" and the student gives you a confident nod and heads off with purpose, you're probably alright. Often they'll hesitate, stare at me for a second longer than they should, and trudge back to their seat. Those kids have no idea how to go out and learn whatever it is they need to learn.

Two things need to be directly addressed to solve the problem: metacognition and time.

The biggest help for my kids so far has been a double megadose of self-assessing and reflection. I try to directly teach a whole lot of different strategies. I'm not 100% at this, and perhaps it needs to go on my checklist, but I've tried to communicate the different methods we've used to learn different concepts. You know all those super cheesy teaching strategies you learn when you're in your credential program? Give one, get one. Think Pair Share. Jigsaw (my personal hell), Pair Coaching, etc. Those "How did you learn it?" questions we ask them are much more valuable when they can say learned really well when we used reciprocal teaching or rally coaching.3 I would like to get to the point where they have created their own master list of strategies that work best for them and they can just select one and go. Unfortunately, most of my kids are still stuck with "Find a kid who gets it and ask" or "Go look in the book." They'll never close the gap if they never learn how to learn.

The second necessity is time. I understand that at some point we all have to move on and say come after school. However, we also have to devote a substantial amount of class time to gap closing to break out of almost formative purgatory. Telling your kids to come after school usually only helps the kids who are motivated (self or externally). I tell many of my kids to come after school for help. Many can't. Others aren't interested.4 We need to schedule time in class. Put it into your curriculum map. I'm not talking about taking an extra day when the class bombed a test. Look at your yearly plan. Every 4-6 weeks insert a week of remediation/acceleration. Let the kids who are behind work on what they've fallen short on. Maybe they picked up a new strategy or maybe seeing the whole picture has made things more clear. Directly teach to targeted groups of kids. Teach them how to teach each other. Challenge the rest of the kids with something that will lead to equal amounts of elation and frustration.

I think it was Chris Lehmann who said that in schools, what we value privilege with time. If you value creating a culture where students are not punished for learning at different rates, you will privilege that with time.

Schedule time to teach them how to think. Schedule time to give them a chance to do so.

1: Liking a site is not equal to agreeing with everything, but they make me think. That's why we're here.
2:I first read it in Atkin, but were made famous by Stiggins. I don't know if Atkin got them from somewhere else.
3. I struggle with getting them to separate the things that helped them learn the best versus the things that they had the most fun with. These are often the same, but not always.
4:If TMAO were still blogging I like to think he'd point to our insistence that anyone who didn't get it the first time needs to come after school as a contributor to the achievement gap.


  1. I can't find the quote either, Jason, but I remember reading somewhere that any meaningful discussion about assessment must also address the grading issue. If/when I find that quote, I'll try to post it again.

    I just posted a comment over on my blog about the subtle message we might be sending students once we put a number into the grade book. It's sort of like tossing in the towel for those that *won't* take the time to come in outside of class to be re-assessed. The three questions you posed about formative assessment are excellent. The third one, "How can I close the gap?" is the most important (Jason, you're on a roll here!). When we put the grade into the grade book and then tell students they need to come in outside of class to learn, we're telling them the only way to close the gap is outside the classroom. Is this a good message? I'm not sure. It may depend on the number of feedback opportunities the students has already been given. It's definitely better than no opportunity at all, but we're in the teaching and blogging business to reach for higher levels, right? :)

    Your thoughts on classroom culture parallel mine: Well-said!

  2. Man, you guys really have my number. I'm powerless not to throw my leftist hook into the fray:

    Percentages don't mean anything to kids. You can even teach about them. You could even give a quiz on it. It doesn't matter. If it's graded, kids see it as a points game. They don't care how much you "minimize" the percentage. The message that's sent is, "If Homework is worth points, Homework is a test." I cannot be ok with this. Homework is practice. It is a sandbox. It is weight lifting. It is anything but a graded assessment.

    Second, Matt is dead on with feedback. All too often I introduce some sweet concept with a cool real-world hook or whatever, and then show some concrete examples, and then leave it to the kids to do their practice problems and ask for help. We spend time in class building connections between the math and its applications, but when do I provide feedback on the more concrete standards on the list? Not really until after the first quiz, which goes in the grade book, and is dynamic. This then leaves it up to the child to remediate any failure, which is asking a lot. Feedback is so crucial.

    Thanks for the great discussion guys!


  3. @Matt I agree about the gradebook. I go back and forth on when I should put something into the gradebook. Even though I change their scores and (hopefully) they know I do, there's a feeling of finality that I can't seem to break. On the other hand, parent/admin pressure means I have to keep it fairly up to date.

    @Shawn - My original edit on this had a lengthy piece of feedback but I cut it because this thing was getting too long as it is. The problem with most of our feedback, and I'm as guilty of this as anyone, is that we assume right/wrong feedback is sufficient. There's a book on feedback by Susan Brookhart that really helped me in this regard. Specific, criterion-referenced feedback good. Norm-based, general comments bad. Working on my oral and written feedback (I am the master of "Good job" and "Work harder next time") has been one of my ongoing struggles.

    In her book, Brookhart points out (and my experience agrees)that if you put feedback and a grade on an assignment, a student will look at their grade first, and their neighbor's grade next. I've found a lot of success in returning things only with feedback but as you said, at some point there's got to be a grade on there.

    re Minimizing percentages - You're dead on. I have a teacher at my school who "motivates" his kids by multiplying by ten every assignment. So he has 1000 point tests and 500 point homework packets. The kids don't get it. All they see is that something is worth 500 points.

    Thanks to both of you for your own great posts. I feel like I should change my blog to just be, "Things that I think of by reading Matt and Shawn's blog"

  4. Does it really matter what we call it? The fact that we have to enter a grade often flies in the face of this formative culture that we all would like to have in our classroom. It's rather utopian, though. The culture of point gathering is so systemic that often times not grading something falls victim to the well-it's-not-going-on-my-grade-so-it-doesn't-matter mentality. I informally polled a few of my students and they said it took them about two months to realize that the grade in the book could change and the score (1-5) gave them an indication of how well they knew the material.

    I, too, have questions about what to do between the initial assessment and the retake. Sometimes the best I can offer them is to take the problems they missed and re work their steps and I or another student can help them find the error.

  5. @David: Great points about giving it a "title." I think that's where you, Karl and a few others have been tweeting back and forth in disagreement about the nature and validity of out-of-class re-assessments. Past the name, I don't think it really matters, except if it's the ONLY opportunity students get to re-take and if the first assessments is the ONLY feedback opportunity the student receives. Brookhart nails this in her book as Jason pointed out.

  6. @David I think it does matter, at least between teachers, what we consider to be formative assessment. Formative assessment needs to cause a change in behaviors. This includes both students and teachers. I think I'm pretty good at 1. Establishing clear targets. 2. Letting kids know where they are in relation to those targets. All I'm saying is that's not enough.I also need to be making time in class to directly address how to close those gaps (either through extra practice or the building of learning skills). As Shawn pointed out, really good feedback is crucial, but they also need time to act on that feedback.

    Changing how/what we grade (record in the gradebook or marked on a paper) is not sufficient. All three of those questions have to be directly addressed with time and teaching.

    There's also quite a bit of personal angst in this post as well. I'm in the midst (like Matt) of trying to lead an assessment shift at my school and my primary concern isn't that nobody will accept a SBG system. It's that people will adopt it and not make a single change in their practice other than what goes in the gradebook.

  7. I've got a tangentially related question-- in addition to thinking about how we use formative assessment, I'm thinking about what a good formative assessment looks like. In math, I think assessing procedural skill is relatively straightforward and then we can worry about what to do with the information we collect. But how do we meaningfully assess conceptual understanding? Would love to hear your thoughts here: Thanks!

  8. I've been mining the internet pretty heavily for information on different teaching strategies lately, talking with a colleague about this very issue, and thinking about it incessantly for three/four hours daily. I know that's weird, and I don't care. I'm going back in September with something that dwarfs what I've been working with for the past few years. Bottom line. Anyway, I like the idea of a tic tac toe choice board and remediation preceding unit summative projects. This might be a world language thing, and it especially might be a world language thing based on my cycle of teaching (Vocabulary/Story/Direct Grammatical Instruction/Formative assessment mixed into all of that/Assessment/Summative Project). Anyway, I think you'd mentioned something like that in the same post where you busted out a topic tracking tool. You were saying that when you did your feedback you had to come prepared with options. The tic tac toe choice board offers options. You just have to make sure that you have two or three prepared so as to make sure a student can get at the skills that are necessary. Not sure how to post a jpg in here or I'd show, not tell.

  9. I got some interesting ideas here:

    There's an example of the aforementioned tic-tac-toe board. Some of the options do send students to the textbook, but at the point that I'm be using the board, they will already have done an assessment and will know what they need to work on.

    I really like the RAFT writing assessments. They're a little trickier in my field because we are usually trying to get students to use the language, not describe it. I've seen some very inspiring examples, though. Some science examples make me wish I taught science, because the roles are so interesting. Like this one--

    Role: Benedict’s Solution
    Audience: Simple Sugar
    Format: Song
    Topic: I’m Blue Without You