More than a Number: Using Formative Assessment to Guide Instruction
by Joseph Mills
August seems so long ago! In a whirlwind of activity, you prepared to welcome 20 or so new students into your classroom. You were probably given a stack of cumulative folders containing a considerable amount of data for each student: standardized test scores, report cards from previous years, reading level as assessed by your district’s chosen benchmark assessment of reading ability, perhaps you even had some anecdotal information from the child’s former teacher(s), and maybe a few samples of the child’s work. Many of you spent time delving into this data before the students arrived at your door on the first day of school, trying to develop a “picture” of who your new students would be and what they might need from you as the new year began.
With the second semester underway, how accurate were your initial assumptions about these students? What methods of assessment have you used to develop a more detailed, more accurate “picture” of who each student is, what she knows, and what she needs to learn? How have you used the assessment data you’ve gathered to guide your instruction?
Effective teachers use a variety of forms of assessment to guide their instruction. Some of these are summative assessments of learning (i.e., end of unit tests, state mandated tests) and are administered after learning is supposed to have occurred (Love, 2009). Others are formative assessments for learning (i.e., student self-evaluation, use of rubrics, running records, observational checklists, etc.) and are ongoing, during instruction.
These data are the foundation of teachers’ day-to-day instructional decision making (Heritage, 2007; Love, 2009). The “Data Pyramid” (Figure 1, below), adapted from The Data Coach’s Guide to Improving Learning for All Students: Unleashing the Power of Collaborative Inquiry, shows the range of data sources available to teachers and the suggested frequency of their use (Love, 2009). As shown in the pyramid, formative classroom assessments should be used most regularly to determine the instructional needs of students. Therefore, teachers need to have a greater understanding of the nature of formative assessment and they need the skills to use it effectively (Heritage, 2007).
FIG. 1: Data Pyramid (Adapted from The Data Coach’s Guide to Improving Learning for All Students: Unleashing the Power of Collaborative Inquiry.)
Heritage (2007) describes formative assessment as having 4 core elements:
Identifying the gap. Teachers use formative assessment to determine a student’s current status in learning as compared to a desired educational outcome. Educational psychologists know this gap as the zone of proximal development (ZPD). First theorized by Lev Vygotsky, “the ZPD is defined as “the distance between what the child can accomplish during independent problem solving and the level of problem solving that can be accomplished under the guidance of an adult or in collaboration with a more expert peer,” (p. 141). When working within a child’s ZPD, teachers must scaffold supports to help the child move from where she is toward the desired outcome. Careful selection of goals within a child’s ZPD is critical. If the gap is perceived as too large, the goals might be unattainable and result in a sense of failure in the in the child. If too small, the goal might be perceived as not worth the child’s effort.
Feedback. Formative assessment provides feedback at two levels, to the teacher about students’ current levels of understanding, and to students about their next steps in learning. Heritage says, “Effective feedback from teachers provides clear, descriptive, criterion-based information that indicates to the students where they are in the learning progression (defined below), how their understanding differs from the desired learning goal, and how they can move forward,” (p.142). In an ongoing process, teachers use feedback to modify instruction and guide student steps toward the educational goal.
Student involvement. Effective formative assessment actively involves students in their own assessment: collaboratively determining their current learning status and steps they need to take to move forward, reflecting on learning and monitoring what they know and understand.
- Learning progressions. Learning progressions articulate the big picture for what students must learn and the steps students take toward meeting the standard. They help teachers and students locate where students are on the learning continuum and how to move forward.
In addition to understanding these core elements, to use successfully formative assessment, Heritage (2007) says classroom teachers need to develop these specific skills:
Creating conditions that allow for successful assessment. Successful formative assessment occurs in classroom cultures that support peer and self-assessment, classrooms where students feel respected and valued, where individual differences are appreciated. Teachers in these classrooms model listening respectfully, and responding positively and constructively. They exhibit an appreciation for the differing skill levels of students.
Teaching students to self-assess. Teachers must be able to help students set learning goals and criteria for success, to reflect on their own understanding, and to evaluate their learning using the criteria. This can be promoted through modeling and asking questions that prompt student reflection and evaluation.
Interpreting evidence. Successful formative assessment requires teachers to look at student work or responses “from the perspective of what they show about their conceptions, misconceptions, skills and knowledge. This involves careful analysis of the responses in relation to the criteria for success,” (p.144). This analysis helps teachers identify the student’s ZPD so that they can determine what instruction the student needs to facilitate growth toward the desired goals. This analysis can also help teachers formulate feedback to students.
- Matching instruction to the gap. Again, instruction must be carefully targeted within the child’s ZPD to avoid frustration from a task that is too difficult or boredom from a task that is too easy. This requires teachers to translate their interpretations of formative data into instructional experiences that are of appropriate demand and are appropriately ordered. This requires the ability to differentiate instruction within the classroom to match each individual student’s needs.
Heritage concludes that teachers’ understanding of effective formative assessments and the skills they need to implement these assessments successfully are not enough to effect significant change. She says, “Teachers must view formative assessment as a worthwhile process that yields valuable and actionable information about student learning,” (p. 145). Embedding the analysis of this data in the Inquiry Cycle (See Figure 2) “where teachers work together to construct their understanding of student learning problems and embrace and test out solutions together,” (Love, 2008) within the context of a professional learning community can help teachers develop this view of formative assessment.
During site visits at Cornerstone schools this year, coaches and fellows worked with Open Classroom Teachers and their grade-level teams using the Inquiry Cycle to research possible answers to questions arising from their analysis of formative data, in most cases data from administration of the DRA2 or the Benchmarks assessments. The teams then investigated current literature to develop action plans and implement grade-level Lesson Links, which culminated in the Winter Conference Lesson Studies. Many of the teams realize that the quarterly administrations of these assessments are not sufficient to guide daily instruction and are beginning to explore other methods of gathering formative data.
One powerful method to gather formative data is through reading conferences.
In the Winter Conference session, More Than a Number: Using Formative Assessment to Guide Instruction, we explored how gathering, analyzing and using formative data to guide instruction look and feel, using the Cornerstone Literacy, Inc. Conferring and Formative Assessment implementation guide as a frame for our discussion. This guide is one of several being developed in response to requests from many teachers, coaches and principals for explicit descriptions of what full implementation of Cornerstone practices “looks like.”
The guides include descriptors of practices teachers and students use during each component of the Readers’ Workshop and the steps teachers might take in reaching full implementation of these practices. The introduction to the Conferring and Formative Assessment guide states, “The desired outcome of conferring is that teachers engage in meaningful conversation with students about their reading and collect pertinent data about their development as readers. Data are gathered in the form of interest surveys, running records, anecdotal notes, and DRA2 or Benchmarks assessments. Informal data are compared to formal data to uncover other learning patterns or learning needs. Data are used to monitor student progress, make instructional decisions, match students with appropriate texts, and create the best learning contexts for all students. When teachers build trust with the students, the conferring experience will be easy and pleasurable.”
We made first steps toward making the gathering and use of formative data “easy and pleasurable” during the Winter Conference and will continue to collaborate with you in your schools this Spring as you build towards full implementation of this important work.
Joseph Mills is a senior literacy fellow for Cornerstone Literacy.
Heritage, M. (2007). Formative assessment: What do teachers need to know and do? Phi Delta Kappan, 89(2), 140-145.
Love, N., Ed. (2009). Using data to improve learning for all: A collaborative approach. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.