Tools of the Trade: Formative Assessment
by Rita Sorrentino
On Tuesday’s Election Ballot in Pennsylvania, voters had an opportunity to decide on a constitutional change to provide property tax relief. Although the choices were simply a YES or a NO, the issue certainly needs conversation for clarification and details for deliverance. For adults, paying taxes is not high on a to-do list. And for students, test taking is an often-dreaded part of the learning process. Interestingly, both of these unpopular activities have their roots in the Latin, assidere, “to sit beside.” Used originally as a function of an assistant-judge whose task it was “to sit with counsel or office” in the context of taxes and fines, it later evolved as the act of judging value. In the early part of the 20th Century, the American university system and the American military were in favor of using assessment as their evaluation/judgment protocol to deal with large numbers of people for whom they needed a way to sort according to intelligence and ability. During World War I, the Army relied on standardized testing to identify who might be suitable for officer training and who would be best suited for the trenches. The “multiple choice” design was deemed objective, scientific and efficient. Over time, our school systems incorporated this type of exam to measure intelligence, knowledge and reading comprehension. The development of technology propelled the practices of “quickly assessing” what students know, and educators used the data to determine who was above or below the established norm and, subsequently, could sort students according to their tested ability. As both a student-taker and teacher-administrator of standardized testing, I can relate to the flaws, overemphasis, and consequences of using only these types of tests. Understanding is more than a multiple choice, Yes/No or T/F response.
Today, fortunately, many educators use a variety of assessment tools and methods to measure learning growth. Combinations of formal and informal assessments provide insight for teachers and benefits for students. State-issued tests for the purpose of accountability are linked to standards that drive instructional practices, but they can run the risk of narrowing the focus of instruction, isolating specific skills, and elevating the importance test-taking strategies. On the other hand, formative assessments give immediate feedback to teachers to guide instruction and assist students in identifying what it is they have understood or not understood for the targeted learning goal.
When I think about formative assessment, my GPS comes immediately to mind: someone sitting with me and guiding me every step of the way. When I ignore the advice, encounter problems, or make a wrong turn; it readily gives me meaningful feedback to get back on track, and coaches me every step of the way to ultimately reach my destination. Every learner would benefit from this kind of assessment, not just to right the wrongs as in the navigation example, but also to discover what was understood, mistaken, or even a bit fuzzy. Used often, formative assessments guide instruction for individual and whole class needs. We best assess our students’ learning when we “sit beside them,” to observe, confer, and offer meaningful feedback for improvement and growth in the learning process.
There are many apps and tools for facilitating formative assessment in the classroom. A simple Google Search will yield a wide range of possibilities. The choice depends on levels of connectivity and types of devices available in the learning environment. I always check on how other educators have reviewed the tool or written about specific features in their blog posts. Here are a few that are worth the click.
Richard Byrne’s Free Technology for Teachers:
One that stands out is Quick Key because it can be used for scanning student work and providing feedback. Or it can be used with a Google Classroom account to distribute and collect assessments.
In this post, Richard discusses the importance of having students easily and quickly access the assessment activity by embedding them into a classroom blog.
Common Sense Education
In this resource, teachers and the Common Sense Team feature formative assessment apps with brief descriptions and comparison ratings.
Tony Vincent’s Learning in Hand
With his ‘glance-able graphics,” Tony Vincent highlights each tool with a very short overview about what it can do to assist teachers to check for understanding, survey background knowledge, review content, and get a general pulse of the classroom. He also emphasis the need to meet students face-to-face and discover many ways get to know students as learners and individual persons.
In their recently published book, authors Lynne Dorfman and Diane Dougherty shine a spotlight on various ways to use formative assessment in the writing workshop. With each chapter, convincing evidence is presented to encourage a worthwhile and effective practice, that surprisingly is not that time-consuming. Included are QR codes that link to classroom videos that demonstrate conferences conducted by teacher and by peers. As the authors state in their Introduction, “In classrooms driven by formative assessment measures, students learn to become more reflective about their writing practices.” Throughout the book, there are many useful examples of student work, anchor charts, checklists and surveys to help manage and document the growth of writers in our classrooms.”
With formative assessment, teachers learn the strengths and weaknesses of the students and tailor instruction accordingly. As with the GPS, teachers sitting beside their students, either digitally or face-to-face, provide a comfort zone and safety net for learning to navigate the many roads along their educational journey.
Please share your thoughts and useful tools in the comments below.
Rita Sorentino taught at Overbrook Elementary in the School District of Philadelphia. She studied Reading Specialist/Education at Saint Joseph’s University. Rita is a fellow of the PA Writing & Literature Project. She is currently studying Italian and writes regularly on technology issue for the PAWLP blog. Rita lives in Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania.