Posie Wood, former 3rd grade teacher
There’s nothing quite like the heartbreak of administering a test to a group of eight and nine year olds that you have come to love dearly—and knowing instantly that you let them down.
As a first year teacher, it wasn’t that I didn’t believe my students were smart and capable, I did. But I also knew from the moment that I saw page 1 of the test booklet that I hadn’t done enough to prepare them for questions and tasks like the ones I saw on the test. As I circulated through my classroom on that humid April morning, I entered into a state of despair, panic, and most of all, shame that I had so failed my students.
Later that day, looking for sympathy from my father, I sobbed the whole story into the phone while sitting in the school parking lot.
“Hold on,” he said. “I don’t want to be a jerk, but shouldn’t you have known?”
“That they were going to struggle on the test. Shouldn’t you have understood better than anyone else where your students were?
With those four words (“Shouldn’t you have known?”) my father (who, by the way, is not an educator) shifted my entire orientation as a teacher. Even though he didn’t know the name for it, my father had turned me on to formative assessment and forced me to see, with cruel clarity, just how powerful a tool it is.
Five lessons from a formative assessment failure
Here are the lessons I have since learned about formative assessment—while intellectually, many of these are things that I had known before I stepped into the classroom, it took a year of teaching to really recognize them:
1. Formative assessment needs to be constant—and it’s more than paper-and-pencil
Formative assessment is more than an exit ticket at the close of a lesson or a set of “check in questions” at the end of the week. It’s really an action and a habit that should be occurring consistently in the classroom. Formative assessment takes many shapes and comes in many sizes: yes, my exit tickets and weekly question sets, were a type of formative assessment, but formative assessment can also be well-timed questions, monitoring of student discussion, observation checklists, interviews, notes pages, one-on-one check-ins, and more. Like learning how to balance on a surfboard, it requires time and practice to build up a teacher’s formative assessment muscle and make it a routine part of daily practice. By thinking about formative assessment as paper-and-pencil strategies only, I’d limited myself to examining only a tiny fraction of the actionable data coming from my students and therefore lost valuable opportunities to fill learning gaps.
2. Formative assessment demands follow up
Formative assessment by definition is meant to inform instructional choices and next steps. Formative assessment without follow-up therefore is not really formative assessment. All those well-meaning exit tickets I’d painstakingly prepared (but rarely had time to review) my first year teaching? All those thoughtful questions I added into my lesson plans? (but never strategically listened to student answers)? I thought I was formatively assessing, but without the expertise that comes with experience (not to mention the time as a first year teacher) to examine my student work, bucket my class into groups based on their demonstrated understanding, and meet each student in the right place, providing the just-right interventions, redirection, questioning, and prompting—I was asking questions, but not following up. I was only doing half the battle.
3. Formative assessment takes planning, coordination, and pedagogical content knowledge
Great formative assessment is planned and backmapped from a larger learning goal. It’s not enough to just ask questions and redirect or reteach when necessary, great formative assessment drives towards an end understanding or challenge (such as adding fractions with like denominators) and provides insight into where understanding breaks down at critical moments, allowing you to adjust course as necessary. When I reviewed the questions and exit slips from my first year, I realized in horror that they were scattered, often uncoordinated with my lesson objective, my modeling, and my targeted state standard. Even when I did have time to review student work, because my formative probing wasn’t always thoughtfully aligned with my instruction or designed to unveil misunderstandings, it did me little good.
4. Formative assessment is an art—but we don’t like to think about it that way.
Looking back on my experience that first year, I realize that something else was at work as well. In both my training prior to entering the classroom and the ongoing professional development I received through my school, as well as classes I sought out on my own, formative assessment was treated as an afterthought, a secondary or supporting character that was constantly upstaged by the star of the show: the state test. In third grade, the first official testing year, this was especially true.
When formative assessment was mentioned at all, it was as an aside—a given, something that everyone MUST be doing, and something so elementary that it did not merit discussion or elaboration. The message that this sent to me as a new teacher was: “Formative assessment is easy, something you should just ‘know’ how to do, it shouldn’t take too much of your time, effort, or thought.” It took the state test, like a bucket of icy water, to wake me up.
The truth is that formative assessment is an art. To be done well, a teacher must exercise the pedagogical content knowledge to craft questions that will reveal and anticipate particular student misunderstandings, quickly interpret student work, responses, and data, rapidly take action—whether that be a follow up question or prompt, regrouping students, or re-teaching a particular concept with a different approach—and juggle all this with the time allotted for instruction and classroom management concerns. As a first year teacher, I was struggling to keep my head above water and blissfully ignorant of delicate balancing act that is formative assessment.
5. Formative assessment gets easier with practice—and support
Building up an approach to formative assessment that is reflexive, one that a teacher can instinctively fire at critical moments with the right questions, prompts, and follow-through takes time and practice. It also takes advice and modeling from veteran teachers, support and feedback from administrators, guidance and examples from curricular tools, and professional development that builds pedagogical content knowledge. This kind of support is made all the more important with the adoption of the Common Core State Standards, which raise the bar and require students to flexibly attack challenging, real-life math tasks and deeply understand complex text. Without routine and thoughtful formative assessment that is anchored by strategic follow-up, students will struggle. Without these supports as a first year teacher, I grappled daily (even though I wasn’t fully aware of that until it was too late).
Scaling our impact
At LearnZillion, the academic team spends a lot of time thinking and talking about formative assessment. Sometimes, I leave these conversations wanting to go back in time to shake my first year teacher self into an earlier realization of the role that formative assessment should have been playing in my classroom all along. More often though, I leave with a sense of respect and awe of teachers and colleagues who have mastered this delicate art—and a desire to take their best practices, habits, and content knowledge and share it with others so that come spring time, there aren’t other first year teachers facing the question, “Shouldn’t you have known?”
Editor’s note: For more on how to leverage some of the techniques Posie mentions in this post, check out:
For Math: http://blog.learnzillion.com/2014/01/16/backwards-mapping-from-parcc-and-sbac-math-items-to-formative-assessments-2/
For ELA: http://blog.learnzillion.com/2014/01/31/text-talks-a-first-step-in-planning-for-close-reading-2/