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The 'Secret Sauce' of Formative Assessment

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    Alexis Margolin

This week, in the second part of a two-part blog series featured on Education Week's Classroom Q&A, Libby Woodfin, EL's Director of Publications, answers the question posed by Larry Ferlazzo "What are effective formative assessment techniques?"  

Response From Libby Woodfin, a former teacher and school counselor, is the Director of Publications at Expeditionary Learning and a co-author of Leaders of Their Own Learning: Transforming Schools through Student-Engaged Assessment and Transformational Literacy: Making the Common Core Shift with Work That Matters

In our experience, what's more important than any particular formative assessment technique is a commitment to involving and investing students in the process. Too often assessment is seen as something that is done to students, yet the root meaning of the word assess is to "sit beside." Thinking of assessment as something teachers and students do together--metaphorically, and sometimes literally, "sitting beside" each other--changes the primary role of assessment from evaluating and ranking students to motivating them to learn.

Our approach to assessment--student-engaged assessment--is a system of eight interrelated practices that positions students as leaders of their own learning:

Here we will highlight just a few: Learning Targets; Using Data with Students; and Models, Critique, and Descriptive Feedback.

Learning Targets Give Students a Goal to Work Toward

Rather than the teacher taking on all of the responsibility for meeting a lesson's objectives, learning targets, written in student-friendly language and frequently reflected on, transfer ownership for meeting objectives from the teacher to the students.

The seemingly simple work of reframing objectives written for teachers (e.g., "Students will describe the differences between living and nonliving things"), to learning targets, written for--and owned by--students (e.g., "I can describe the differences between living and nonliving things"), turns assessment on its head. The student becomes the main actor in assessing and improving his or her learning.

Standards-based long-term learning targets can be broken down into daily lesson-level learning targets that help students stay focused on their learning goals every day while also giving them a picture of where they are headed over the course of weeks or months.

What's most important is that students know what they are aiming for and are given multiple opportunities to assess their progress. You can view students at Odyssey School of Denver unpacking, using, and reflecting on the power of learning targets here.

Using Data with Students Builds Their Capacity to Reflect, Set Goals, and Document Growth

Teachers and school leaders everywhere collect and analyze data to make instructional decisions. However, in most schools the power of data to improve student achievement is not fully leveraged because students are left out of the process. When students learn to analyze data about their performance they become active agents in their own growth.

Providing students with the opportunity to identify their own strengths and weaknesses through data analysis gives them a powerful tool for learning. It moves conversations about progress from abstract, generic goals (e.g., try harder, study more) to student-determined, targeted goals (e.g., increase my reading level by 1.5 years, master 80 percent or more of my learning targets, ensure that 100% of my homework is completed and submitted) and provides them with skills to track those goals. In the data tracking form that follows, note the learning target at the top of the page and a clear system by which even a very young student can track her progress at periodic intervals.

When students learn to analyze data about their performance they develop a growth mindset [Based on the work of Carol Dweck (2006)]. They learn to see their intelligence as something that can be developed through hard work, not something that is fixed and unchangeable. Documenting their learning over time through data analysis helps them see the connection between their hard work and their achievement. You can see students at two schools in Rochester, New York, using data to reach their goals here.

Models, Critique, And Descriptive Feedback Are Tools for Improvement That Students Can Master

Standards do not create a picture of what students are aiming for--they are typically dry technical descriptions. When a Common Core literacy standard requires that students "use organization that is appropriate to the task and purpose" what does that mean? What does that look like? What if instead of always being disappointed in the writing our students turn in we worked together with them to examine exemplar models and unpack the criteria that make them high quality?

In the figure that follows we see the six drafts of a scientific drawing that first-grader Austin created. He and his classmates in Boise, Idaho, had looked together at models of butterfly illustrations and created the criteria and a rubric for strong illustrations. After each successive draft, Austin brought his illustration to his classmates who critiqued it against the rubric and gave him feedback. In the end, he was able to create a beautiful high-quality final product that resembled a scientifically accurate Tiger Swallowtail.

Models, critique, and descriptive feedback emphasize skills of critical analysis and self-assessment and ask students to make important decisions about their work and learning. Because the path to meeting learning targets is clearly defined by a shared vision of what quality looks like, students can work independently and build skills confidently.

You can view students learning about how Austin created his butterfly here.

Meaningfully engaging students in understanding their learning goals, tracking their progress, and, ultimately, communicating their learning to their families and communities is the secret sauce of assessment. School improvement can begin in many places, but in the end, it only succeeds when it is embraced and led by the hearts and minds of students themselves. School improvement can begin in many places, but in the end, it only succeeds when it is embraced and led by the hearts and minds of students themselves.

School improvement can begin in many places, but in the end, it only succeeds when it is embraced and led by the hearts and minds of students themselves.