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Educator Teams Explore Formative Assessment (2007)
Nashua, NH More than one hundred educators from six states gathered at the 2007 Education Leadership Conference to learn how to unleash the power of formative assessment. The three-day conference, sponsored by Dover, New Hampshire-based Measured Progress, took place in Nashua, New Hampshire, July 10 through 12, 2007.
Twenty-one teams of teachers and administrators from Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island attended the conference, representing schools, districts, and in one case, a state education department. The teams formed four larger groups and were each assigned a coachone of the expert conference facilitatorsto help reflect on what they had learned and built a plan of action for their organization. The conference structure allowed group members to discuss prior experiences with formative assessment and challenges they will face in implementing this new teaching approach.
Michael Ehringhaus, Measured Progress director of professional development, introduced attendees to the conference objective and the importance of gaining formative assessment skills. “We want to plant a seed,” he said, “and introduce you to formative classroom practices that help you built a culture of achievement.”
Teachers have the most powerful impact on students, and formative assessment techniques will help them maximize student success, Ehringhaus said. “Students are not going to learn unless they decide to learn. Of all the bells and whistles offered to teachers, this practice, confirmed by 250 research-based sources, will empower your students to take charge of their learning.”
“Formative assessment happens while you are teaching,” said Measured Progress President Stuart Kahl, who showed participants how formative assessment relates to a balanced assessment system. “While formative assessment may not give you the same validity as a summative test,” he said, “it allows you to address individual students or subgroups of students, to dig deeper, and to make immediate adjustments to the curriculum.” Kahl also stressed that formative assessment does not require extra time. “Don’t do more; do it differently.”
Keynote speaker Margaret Heritage further defined formative assessment as a “constant process of gathering evidence from students and providing feedback to students.” Heritage is the assistant director for professional development at the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards and Student Testing (CRESST) at University of California, Los Angeles.
Throughout the conference, Heritage called attention to setting short-term learning goals. Simple targets can be readily communicated to students, allowing teachers to “easily collect multiple forms of evidence for the same learning goal, interpret the evidence, and take action to close the gap” before moving on to the next idea, subject, or lesson. “Teachers simply need to look at this practice as a partnership of students and teachers moving forward together,” she said.
According to formative assessment experts, teachers should gather at least three pieces of evidence to show a student’s progression toward a learning goal. These can be obtained through observation, conversation, and products. This process of “triangulation” allows teachers to organize the evidence and then combine the data to inform the teaching process, explained Sara Bryant, doctoral student at the University of Colorado at Boulder. “Teachers already practice formative assessment when talking to and observing students in the classroom,” she said.
Teams were taken through four modules, which aimed to transform the common classroom practices Bryant described into powerful assessment tools. The presentations explored four linked aspects of formative classroom assessment: descriptive feedback, peer assessment, questioning, and self assessment. Facilitators used hands-on formative assessment techniques during their presentations and activities, but also showed video clips and student work from actual classrooms.
Participants agreed that the conference helped them “make all the connections; make it all fit.” The keynote presentations and modules “identified where formative assessment is already being used and how it can be used more effectively,” said Mitzi George, a teacher from J. I. Watson Middle School in Iowa, Louisiana. “I always thought [formative assessment] was something we might want to try; now it is something we will use,” said another attendee.
Teams left the conference with a detailed plan of how to proceed with formative assessment in their school or district. The New Hampshire Department of Education team intends “to promote a common understanding statewide of formative assessment as an integral part of instruction, in support of the Follow the Child Initiative and New Hampshire growth model.”
Measured Progress plans to build on the model of this conference by conducting workshops and conferences about formative assessment in other areas of the United States and to support educators as they implement and practice the formative culture of learning.
“We need to find a way to get there slowly, and for all groupsadministrators, teachers, students, and parentsto buy into this new way of teaching,” Heritage encouraged attendees. “Teachers have a platform to work from. We need to elevate the platform.” Start with bringing clarity to formative assessment vocabulary, introduce the strategies as something teachers are already doing, take small steps of turning theory into practice, build a community of practice and share your expertise, Heritage added. “We are not only closing the knowledge gap for our students, we are closing the gap for instruction.”