One of my all time favorite online articles is by Grant Wiggins where the first sentence says,
"Here's a radical idea: We need more assessment, not less."
That always gets the conversation rolling. Teachers jump up and start the long and loud protest about how we're overtested and the kids are burned out. And then they read a bit further and he says,
"Seem crazy. Substitute feedback for assessment, and you'll better understand what I mean."
These two simple sentences are enough to launch hours and hours of productive conversation about how we amp up student learning. Learning in ways that honor and respect the intellectual nature of our student because using formative assessments to pace your instruction, help you know what you need to skip or reteach and empowering students is where it is at. Doing formative assessments well forces you to figure out what you really value in the curriculum standards and gives students AND teachers valueable information for every step of the way.
The Blueprint says this...
Districts and schools that are improving generally show a commitment to the use of student assessment data to diagnose weaknesses and guide improvement efforts. They provide data to teachers and principals in a timely manner, train teachers in how to use these data effectively and give the teachers time to analyze the data.
I'd like to see us blend the ideas from Wiggins article with the notion that teachers need more formative testing (or substitute feedback). The best part of this idea is that it doesn't require huge data warehouses...just teachers who know how to develop measures that can be taken along the way so that they can make sure everyone learns as much as they can as they go along.
Let me give you a concrete example from this past month. I assigned a project where students had to apply what they had learned about similar shapes....they had to write algebraic "rules" to define how they were going to manipulate their shapes, mathematically compare different dimensions of those shapes (ie side lengths, perimeter and area) and then write a report. The due date was about 2 weeks from the assign date. On the first day, I hand out a rubric that has the dimensions that I expect in every project, I define what those dimensions look like at various levels of performance AND I show them past student projects so they can see what those levels look like.
Formative assessments allowed me to walk by and check with my students everyday on how they were doing...and when I could see they were all struggling with something similar, I could immediately do a mini-lesson the next day to remedy those problem areas. If I saw that one or two students were struggling with something that no one else was, I could adjust and make sure I spent more time with them.
You see....high stakes bubble bound tests don't do this. They see what you've learned at the end and the chips fall where they may. In my project, I make sure they all arrive at the end point....yes, students take many paths, but they are all pretty much successful to the minimum I set.
You might be wondering what I do with those students that always finish things like this quickly. Well, I have two additional challenges. They can supersize their enlargements...ala the Oprah Winfrey slogan of "Go Big or Go Home". This delights all of them and their enlargements get bigger and bigger and bigger. For those that are not so art inclined, I designed a creative story element. Each of the similar shapes they create looks different from the original...but they are still in the "family". Students must write a creative story that tells the tale of how each shape came to look the way it did. I'm telling you these stories are funny, sad and completely true to who these middle schoolers are. The only thing that was more fun that the stories were the "Family Portraits" we took...each student posed with their family members...and I created an album of all our families. Korny, but part of what it takes to engage students and make taking a long term assessment like this fun.
All of this is to say......that when I look at how the reauthorization of ESEA will help me do more formative assessments, I just don't see it. I see lots of commitment to bigger testing systems and if you look at the recent testimony in front of he Committee on Education and Labor, I hear lots of support for bigger and better data warehouse kinds of things.
But you see....I don't need a data warehouse to know what each of the kids sitting in my room needs me to do. I just can figure that out by watching them work on the project or talking to them....or even by listening to them. I can also prove, using student work samples as my evidence, that they've learned every objective in my curriculum. And I know it all hinges on that all important formative assessments that I've created for along the way.
I wish the folks would realize that teachers are smart; we know our kids, we know our curriculum and we can build systems of MORE assessment...if you just let us build the right kind.