How Can We Improve Formative Assessment?

Since the beginning of this year, my school has embarked on an effort to use more holistic assessments of student learning—to put more emphasis on formative assessments and less on summative assessments. What modes of assessment can give us the best picture of students’ learning and help us close achievement gaps?Han_j65x65

—James Han, teacher and research activist, St. Anthony’s Primary School, Singapore

Remember the Purpose of Assessment

We should think of all assessments as formative. Why give a student a test if not to learn from the students’ responses how to adjust instruction? The purpose of assessments is to answer the questions, Where is the student today, and how can I help the student grow tomorrow?

Although there is no single best assessment to gauge understanding by a student, some types of assessments give a clearer and fuller picture of the students’ comprehension. The more we move away from fill-in-the-blank, multiple-choice, or true-false questions and toward questions that require more complex and detailed answers, the better we can assess the students’ understanding of the subject. If possible, teachers should try to conference individually with students so that the students can explain their answers or demonstrate their understanding with authentic learning tasks. I also suggest allowing students show their comprehension in a variety of ways. The best assessment is actually to have multiple assessments of the same topic or skill. Shuldiner_b65x65

—Ben Shuldiner, principal, High School for Public Service, Brooklyn, N.Y.

Plan Backward from the End Task

There is an axiom relative to instruction: start where the student is. Ongoing formative assessment allows the teacher to guide the instruction to the end product. When we focus on a summative task, we should ask ourselves, What does the student need to know and do to accomplish the task? For example, if the summative task will include writing an editorial about climate change, both instruction and formative assessment should include not only the relevant scientific content but also how to compose an editorial. This backward planning of instruction ensures that the students have the opportunity to develop all the skills and knowledge they need to meet the demands of the performance task. Klemp_r65x65

—Ron Klemp, professor, Santa Monica College and California State University, Northridge

Let Students Choose How to Show Understanding

Giving students an opportunity to demonstrate mastery of content completes the circle that, to coin a now-common phrase, begins with the end in mind. Before you even begin a unit of teaching, identify what students need to understand. Step back and summarize all the standards addressed in a unit. Make content relevant. Then, consider the various modes to demonstrate understanding and provide a choice of response activities. Some students are artists, others writers or builders. Choosing the method of response gives students the ability to demonstrate true understanding.Broccolino_t65x65

—Tracy Broccolino, manager, Connections Virtual Academy, Baltimore, Md.

Each month in Educational Leadership‘s “Among Colleagues” column, practicing educators will draw from their own experience to share advice about challenges their colleagues face. This month’s participants are some of the 2010 ASCD Annual Conference Scholars.