Learning to Strengthen Formative Assessment Practices

K-12 Testing

In an excellent 100-page new book, J. Myron Alkin and his colleagues present rich, complex and distinctive examples of how teachers learned to improve their classroom assessment practices. The heart of the book is a set of case studies describing the challenges, rewards, complexities and powerful consequences of teachers collaboratively exploring approaches to formative assessment and implementing them in their classrooms.


Formative assessment enables the teacher to provide quick, understandable and helpful feedback to students in order to improve learning. Research has found it can have a large impact on student achievement (see Examiner, Winter 1999). As this book shows well, learning to implement formative assessment can be an equally powerful tool for educator professional development, affecting not only assessment, but also curriculum, instruction, and classroom management.


The book describes the Classroom Assessment Project to Improve Teaching and Learning (CAPITAL), a four-year Stanford University/National Science Foundation exploration of how more than 25 teachers went about changing assessment in their classrooms and the consequences of doing so. Researchers teamed up with teachers to share ideas and to reflect on and critique each others' work. Though focusing on science, this book will be valuable to teachers in any subject area, as well as to administrators and others.


The case studies cover 10 of the teachers, four of whom worked as one team. The most profound finding was that every teacher went about engaging in and owning change in her or his own way. In the face of standardization through high-stakes testing and system pressure to simply adopt and implement pre-digested programs, these studies show teachers as thoughtful practitioners who grapple with multiple, complex issues. These include their own beliefs, their current practices in assessment and other areas, the students they teach, the resources available to them, and the pressures, constraints and support of their teaching environments. The teachers also had to grapple with large class sizes, too many classes, and often a lack of resources.


With all this rich diversity, the book does uncover important common themes. Collaboration over extended time is essential, a necessary core of high-quality professional development: "'It is through collaboration that we begin to understand what an art teaching is.'" And, "change involved a long-term conversation focused on practice while valuing and encouraging variation among members of the group." Assessment is a very useful lever for professional development because classroom assessment is tightly interwoven with instruction.


The teachers often worked toward deeper student involvement in the assessment process. Central to the work of these teachers are complexities for teachers in ensuring students understand science concepts: One teacher, called Irene, told the researchers, "'This year, kids who are doing well on tests don't seem to be getting it.' She observed that the corollary was also true: students who did not do well on tests demonstrated in the remarks they made during class discussions and in other aspects of their work."


Teachers used a variety of assessment approaches. Though there were overlaps, no two were the same. Observing, questioning, dialogs, writing, projects, experiments, quizzes, tests and grading all underwent scrutiny and change in a process teachers found often difficult, sometimes painful, and enormously rewarding. Over the years, some teachers' conceptions of their work changed profoundly.


The cases in the book provide substantial detail about actual classroom assessment practices that teachers can consider. The book also initiates a policy discussion: "Again and again, CAPITAL teachers led us to challenge conventional notions of teacher change and the dissemination efforts that are typically carried out to spread educational innovations."


Simply holding workshops, even very good ones, sends the message that the point of professional development is for teachers to absorb and replicate. One group refused an offer to do a formal workshop, saying "We declined because we felt that real change occurs only when the teacher internalizes it… we offered to lead a discussion and model it on our CAPITAL meetings-not offering solutions, but listening to teachers talk about what they'd like to improve in their classrooms and encouraging them to try something new."


This finding, and the profound respect for teachers and their professionalism that it implies, suggests a policy approach that is radically different from the dominant themes of tests and consequences. As a teacher called Anthony explained it: "The standardized testing model says you motivate people… by telling them exactly what to do, then rewarding them for doing it and punishing them for failing to do it… An alternative model is one that emphasizes teacher professionalism. This model says teachers will do their best not when threatened or coerced, but when given support and the opportunity to grow."


Another teacher, Vicki, "makes an articulate case from one teacher's experience and perspective that dissemination tactics that merely offer a proliferation of strategies, even very good ones, cannot create sustainable change."


The "Joint Organizational Statement on No Child Left Behind," endorsed by more 70 education, civil rights, civic and religious organizations (see story, this issue), calls for changing the federal law from an emphasis on testing and sanctions to an emphasis on helping schools improve their capacity to serve all their students well. This book makes a valuable contribution toward explaining how this can be done. It provides cogent examples for emulation and reflection. Most importantly, it shows why real learning, by teachers and students, is a personal, collaborative, owned experience, not the consequence of force feeding to boost test scores.


- Designing Everyday Assessment in the Science Classroom, J. Myron Alkin, et al., 2005, Teachers College Press.