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Formative Assessments and Supportive Classroom Climates

As we explore the design and application of formative assessments, it is important that we look at the culture of the classrooms in which they will be administered. Formative assessments will increase their effectiveness when they are administered within a supportive classroom culture. When individual students - and the class as a whole - understand the benefits of assessment, the value of those measurements is increased significantly.

The real purpose of assessment is to improve individual learning results and not to raise test scores for campus or district accountability ratings. The history of test results being used primarily to hold schools and districts up to public scrutiny and accountability has created a chill factor within classrooms. Teachers - and even students - are understandably skeptical about the entire subject of assessments because of how results have been misapplied in the past.

It is unfortunate that the assessment process has evolved into a high stakes accountability game and a means by which the press reports and communities then judge the quality of entire districts. However, it is equally unfortunate that teachers too often misapply the assessment process.

In a recent article, James Popham makes the comment that "Most teachers in America use their classroom assessments either to assign grades or to motivate students to study harder." ("Six Curriculum Mistakes" by James Popham in American School Board Journal, November 2009 [Vol. 196, #11]).

In reality, most assessments have become tools that are misapplied by being used to manage data or student behavior through the use of grades as punishment or reward. These traditional uses of assessments miss the mark when it comes to more fundamental and meaningful applications of measuring progress and guiding student efforts to re-evaluate their level of understanding and mastery of lesson objectives.

When properly applied, assessment data provides meaningful feedback to both teacher and student. At a minimum, teachers can discover gaps in their lesson progressions, identify areas of strengths and weaknesses in their presentation of the material, and identify students struggling with specific parts of a lesson. Students - when taught how - can use assessments to help them identify areas they need to review, discover methods of learning that are not effective in certain situations, and try different approaches to mastering the lesson.

Regardless of widespread misapplication, effective assessments can provide useful information that improves both the teaching process as well as student learning. The benefits of well-designed assessment instruments and methods are widely documented. However, we often focus on the assessment tools without paying adequate attention to the importance of the classroom environment in which the assessments are being administered. When discussing the measurement of student learning with staff, I emphasize that the entire process can be further improved if it takes place within a positive assessment climate.

What comprises a positive assessment climate? The variety of different operational definitions will certainly vary from classroom to classroom, campus to campus, and district to district. Regardless of any other components that can be added to match a specific classroom, I would suggest four classroom practices that are essential starting points for creating a positive assessment climate.

1) Assessments are interwoven throughout all lessons. Establish a climate in which assessments are not a one-time or isolated occurrence. Students should understand and accept assessment as an on-going process. No matter what formats are used, formative assessment - checking for understanding - should be an inherent, on-going practice that is planned and incorporated throughout the day and in all lessons.

2) Use a wide variety of assessment methods. We are not talking about a barrage of pop quizzes, true/false or multiple-choice worksheets, or formal essay exams given on a regular basis. The means by which teachers can measure student understanding and progress are as unlimited as the imagination. A point must be made here: effective assessments - regardless of their traditional or innovative designs, must be planned...they are not spontaneous. (For a quick idea of the variety of measurements, refer to the Suggested Reading list at the end of this post.)

3) The classroom should provide protection from adverse consequences for initial failures. Establish a culture in which attempting work without fear of ridicule or criticism from others is the norm. Encourage and support experimentation in the classroom. Make sure students are free to try various approaches to discovering answers in a classroom. Encourage students to ask for help from peers and allow them to have access to a variety of resources and technology. Failing at any task after a true attempt should be acceptable and not linked to any negative grading system.

4) The climate must provide clear standards by which student work will be evaluated and promote an affirmation of student progress. The classroom must promote student success through a means where students understand the criterion by which they are being evaluated. This process is most successful when students can view samples of successful work products or be provided with clear explanations regarding how their learning/work will be judged. Additionally, a positive assessment climate will encourage students to perform work and allow others to view their efforts. When this effort - as well as the actual work product - can be viewed as a "work in progress" and the efforts receive praise and constructive feedback - especially from "significant others" - students will: a) feel free to experiment and find the correct answers themselves, b) consult with peers to discover correct answers, or c) be encouraged to try other avenues of learning to reach eventual success.

To fully explore the supporting research behind these starting points, refer to Philip Schlechty's work, specifically his design qualities of: Product Focus, Clear and Compelling Product Standards, Protection from Adverse Consequences for Initial Failures, Affirmation of Performance, and Affiliation. [Schlechty, Philip Working on the Work: An Action Plan for Teachers, Principals, and Superintendents. Jossey Bass Education Series, 2002.] Also refer to Robert Marzano's essential instructional strategies of Reinforcing Effort and Providing Recognition, Cooperative Learning, and Setting Objectives and Providing Feedback. [Marzano, Robert; Pickering, Debra; Pollock, Jane Classroom Instruction that Works: Research-Based Strategies for Increasing Student Achievement. Prentice Hall, 2004.]

In conclusion, despite widespread misapplication of assessments, the practice of measuring student learning remains an invaluable part of the total teaching process. When assessments can be administered within a supportive environment, their value increases. Teachers can establish a positive assessment climate in several concrete ways. Teachers can establish this climate by using assessments as a planned, on-going part of all lessons. They should use a variety of assessment methods, promote student work efforts and products being visible to significant others, affirm each student's performance, encourage experimentation, and protect students from adverse consequences for honest attempts and initial failures. When measurements of student learning are properly designed and incorporated within a classroom which understands and accepts the process and the benefits it yields, the value of assessments increase substantially.

Suggested Reading:

Dodge, Judith 25 Quick Formative Assessments for a Differentiated Classroom. New York: Scholastic, 2009.

Fisher, Douglas; Frey, Nancy Checking for Understanding - Formative Assessment Techniques for Your Classroom. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2007.

Kingore, Bertie Assessment: Time Saving Procedures for Busy Teachers (Second Edition). Austin, TX: Professional Associates Publishing, 1999.

Koretz, Daniel Measuring Up - What Educational Testing Really Tells Us. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2008.

Marzano, Robert; Pickering, Debra; Pollock, Jane Classroom Instruction that Works: Research-Based Strategies for Increasing Student Achievement. Prentice Hall, 2004.

Popham, W. James Transformative Assessment. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2008.

Schlechty, Philip Working on the Work: An Action Plan for Teachers, Principals, and Superintendents. Jossey Bass Education Series, 2002.

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