I’m so exciting to begin my 2017 Summer PD series with you today! When I attended the NCTM (National Council of Teachers of Mathematics) annual conference this past April, one of the bestselling books was a new book called The Formative 5 by Skip Fennell, Beth Kobett, and Johnathan Wray, which offers teachers five everyday assessment techniques to inform your planning and instruction. Through the Summer PD series, I will be discussing each of the techniques and offering ways to get started using them in school next August. You can even catch a video summarizing the week’s learning over on Facebook or my YouTube Channel. Ready? Let’s dive right in!
Don’t see the video? Click here to see the video version of this post!
What is a Formative Assessment?
Assessing what our students know and are able to do is part of what we do as educators each and every day; however, the type of assessment we use differs from day to day. Sometimes, we want to assess our students’ understanding of the last unit or set of skills. In this case, we use a summative assessment—a tool that will allow us to assess students’ overall understanding of content and skills. A summative assessment can be a unit or chapter test, district-created benchmark test, high-stakes test, etc. Summative test results are often used to determine classroom or grade-level interventions.
On the other hand, formative assessments tend to be more fluid and vary widely. Formative assessments provide evidence and information that is used as feedback to make changes to the teaching and learning process. A formative assessment, sometimes referred to as assessment for learning, can be anything that will provide the necessary information to inform the instructional practices of teachers.
Why is Formative Assessment Important?
Recently, there has been a big emphasis on the use of formative assessment in the classroom. Just a quick Google search brings up a ton of references and resources. So, what’s the big deal? Why all of the fuss?
I’m not sure about your experience, but when I was in school, the only grades I can recall in my mathematics classes came from unit and chapter tests, quizzes, and independent practice, like homework from the textbook or worksheets. As you can imagine it was boring, so boring, but this is what my teachers used to understand where my thinking lay in the learning process. Often the only time there was a change in the course of the lesson was after a quiz or test—too late to really make a difference.
Merriam Webster defines the word formative as “used to describe the time when someone or something is growing or being formed.” With that definition in mind, the purpose then of a formative assessment is to be used when a concept or skill is still being formed.
As an educator who has studied mathematics education for my entire adult life, and wrote my Master’s thesis on the topic, looking at formative assessments from this perspective provides some new insight—insight that will become the focus of this summer blog series.
Types of Formative Assessment
Recently, the buzz surrounding formative assessment has been about new tech tools and online platforms like, Kahoot and Plickers, but there are other popular forms too. In a search for “types of formative assessments,” gobs of lists related to exit tickets, task cards, graphic organizers, checking for understanding checkpoints, Google forms, Clickers, questioning activities, pencil-and-paper tasks, and self-assessments all populate the search results. Seeing this long list of formative assessment activities/tasks brings up an important question—what are we doing with the results of these assessments? After all, in the words of one of my instructional coaching friends, “it’s not formative unless you do something with it.” So, what are we doing with the feedback from these “assessments”?
In many classrooms, including my own, a formative assessment lead to a grade. While I did in fact use the data to help me decide what to do next in the learning cycle, I also assigned a grade. Now, as I read the text and work through this series, I begin to wonder whether assigning a grade to the task made the assessment more summative in its value. I was assessing student understanding at the end of the skill—which means that I was planning to move on. I only went back to review or incorporate the concept or skill into my station tasks if the feedback indicated that it was in fact necessary. What if I reframed my thinking and my process to use formative assessments in the moment to inform my teaching practice right there on the spot? What a novel idea right!
Assessing to Inform
The overall theme of The Formative 5 is focused on using formative assessments to be intentional and as influencers in the planning and teaching process. Using formative assessments to influence “planning informs both teaching and learning” (p. 7)—the true goal of any formative assessment.
The text references five strategies for using assessment for learning effectively in the classroom:
- Shares the criteria for successful mastery of content and skills with students.
- Skillfully uses classroom discourse, questioning, and learning tasks to provide evidence of student understanding.
- Provides valuable data and feedback allowing learners to move forward in the learning process.
- Allows students to take charge and show ownership of their learning.
- Encourages students to be resources for each other.
When “teachers regularly use [assessments for learning] both within and between lessons,” (p.9) the level of student mastery increases. However, effective assessments don’t just happen by accident; “your teaching will reflect the formative assessment techniques you had planned to use to monitor student progress and the lesson’s overall effectiveness” (p. 11).
The Formative 5
The authors of The Formative 5 identify five techniques, observations, interviews, show me responses, hinge questions, and exit tasks, which can be used and blended to formatively assess and effectively guide your teaching and learning each and every day.
Join me for the next six weeks as I delve into The Formative 5 and give my own insight and tips for implementing the techniques into your classroom this fall.
Sound Off! What formative assessment techniques are you currently using?
Reference: Fennell, F., Kobett, B. M., Wray, J. A. (2017). The formative 5: Everyday assessment techniques for every math classroom. Thousand Oaks, California: Corwin.