True to Mount Vernon’s strategic plan goal to implement a balanced assessment program and my August 2013 goal of learning more about all things assessment this year, I devoured W. James Popham’s Transformative Assessment and, as we do at Mount Vernon, I’m going to start with questions:

  • Can the formative assessment process be both formative in nature and be used as one of many means to determine a child’s standards-based grade?
  • Have I been misusing the term “formative assessment” when referring to ERB’s Children’s Progress assessment?
  • How can I best share formative assessment whys and hows with faculty?

Popham defines formative assessment as “a planned process in which assessment-elicited evidence of students’ status is used by teachers to adjust their ongoing instructional procedures or by students to adjust their current learning tactics” (6).

So far my biggest “ah-ha” is Popham’s statement that formative assessment is a “process rather than a test” (8). I’m fully guilty of calling certain assessments formative and certain assessments summative.

Additionally, formative assessment is about the now rather than the future teachings of a concept. Thus, teachers strive to make modifications to approaches to curricular goals they are currently looking for in students’ understanding. Students can use this approach, too, by making adjustments in how they tackle their own learning. In essence, it’s about “decision making” (23). Does a teacher (or student) need to adjust what he or she is currently doing to better foster student understanding?

Finally, in order to create the most effective learning progressions, we need to truly understand the intricacies of the end goal. We need to understand, with examples and non-examples, the meaning of a learning outcome in order to best help students master it. This is an especially vital task when we encounter new learning outcomes at the start of a school year.

What a delight to see Popham use a familiar leveling system to describe the learning progression of formative assessment. We can grow our understanding of formative assessment from level 1 (teachers implementing formative assessment in their classrooms to making ongoing instructional decisions) to level 4 (school-wide study and implementation of formative assessment through professional development or learning cohorts).

Popham repeatedly encourages us to make decisions ahead of time, rather than in the moment. What questions will we ask students during formative assessment? Which type of formative assessment will reap the best result? What will be the deciding factor to determine whether or not I adjust my teaching plan based on the formative assessment results (the “adjustment trigger” p. 64)? Intentional, thoughtful planning of instruction and assessment has a positive impact on student learning.

It’s reaffirming to encounter another resource that so nicely integrates with Wiggins and McTigue’s Understanding by Design.  Themes of backward design, intentional planned assessment (formative and summative) with pre-determined criteria, and intentional design of learning experiences based on learning outcomes directly relate to UbD. Additionally, Popham reminds us that students need to understand the curricular aims at the start of a unit in student-friendly language; they need to interact with it frequently (post it somewhere in the room!). I wonder how often we share with students how we will measure their understanding of a learning outcome or why we’ve chosen a specific assessment technique? How often do we share sample weak or strong student responses on assessments?

To begin to answer some of my earlier questions:

  1. Popham is strictly against using formative assessment for a grade. I’d like to dig deeper into this with younger students, knowing that we have a standards-based report card that uses the median score rather than the mean.
  2. We should consider calling Children’s Progress a benchmark assessment rather than a formative assessment. I have more research and questions here.
  3. To share the best takeaways with colleagues, I will Tweet a few of my favorite quotes and share my book notes. Also, during grade-level planning I will continue to collaborate and add to assessment ideas with my colleagues.

Moving forward (Dweck’s growth mindset in action!), my action steps (shared to hold me accountable!):

  • Modify my language when discussing formative assessment to be about the process rather than the actual “test”
  • Advocate for an increased use of formative assessment, sharing research-based evidence that students learn better when formative assessment is implemented correctly.
  • Practice creating learning progressions with a direct focus on using thoughtful sequencing, determining preliminary subskills, and choosing best methods of formative assessment.
  • Encourage faculty to “level up” in formative assessment (see chapters 3-6).