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The Power of Formative Assessment

Submitted by Kelley Inden, BCTELA Executive Member
Blogs at Messy Professional

As you may have read in our previous post, we are running a book club this summer and fall as a lead-in to our provincial conference. We are excited to have Cris Tovani as our keynote speaker, and decided to use her latest book to build community and generate interest in our event.

 

BCTELA PRESENTS:

Multiple Pathways; Diverse Texts

Provincial Conference, October 24-26, 2013

Delta Secondary School

Ladner, British Columbia

If you click on ‘CONFERENCE’ above, you’ll find the registration link. We hope you’ll join us!

In the meantime, we invite you to join us in reading, So What Do They Really Know: Assessment That Informs Teaching and Learning. The BCTELA executive will be blogging about the chapters in this space, and we will also be hosting a couple of Twitter chats. The first will engage with Chapters 1-4, on July 25th, at 3pm. The second twitter chat will be August 26th on the remainder of the book. We will also have an Elluminate session in the fall before the conference. If you don’t have a copy, you have time to pick it up, and join us for any or all of the discussions. Those of you who signed up should have received your books in the mail by now. We are excited to have you all join us.

On to the book itself. I have been tasked with the first chapter, titled, “Assessment: It Doesn’t Have to Be the Enemy.” Well, have I shown up in the right book club!

I have a love-hate relationship with assessment.  By turns, it is all that matters to me, and all that I want to run away from. It is complicated.

The very process of assessing what someone knows and can do is complicated.

I suppose if we are teaching by telling, and assessing by asking students to retell, it is not that complicated. (Neither is it pedagogically sound.)

If, however, we are teaching thinking, if we are teaching skills like writing and reading, if we are teaching voice and creativity, or synthesis and analysis, well then, it is complicated. It is not really this that makes me want to scream and run away, however. I love the challenge (though not always the hours) of assessment, because I love the thrill of moving students forward in their learning journeys.

No, it is often the deeply ingrained conventions of assessment, no, of marking or grading, of providing a numerical descriptors, that drive me to insanity. I have written about these issues on my own professional blog and will not rehash those thoughts here, but I will say that I resist giving over my professional understanding of a student’s abilities to a grading program or a series of summative assessments.

In her first chapter, Tovani points out how limited tests can be as a source of valid information. Students cheat, for example. They blow tests off because they don’t think they can do well or because they panic. Perhaps they struggle with learning disabilities. Perhaps the test provides only a very limited amount of information. Tovani writes that summative assessments in general are like an autopsy – helpful to investigators and family members in order to determine what happened, but not much use to the deceased (12).

Instead, Tovani seeks “…multiple pieces of evidence to tell me the stories of the learners in my room so that neither they nor I would ever be judged solely by a test score” (2). She continues the medical metaphor to illustrate that formative assessments are like wellness physicals that provide feedback on what is going well, and suggests areas in need of improvement (13).

Most significantly for me, she is emphatic that formative assessments empower both teachers and learners. This has been my experience. I will let her words explain:

In education, a lot of things are beyond classroom teacher’s control. They can’t excuse students from high-stakes assessments. They have no say in how large their class sizes are and can’t turn students away, even when there are no more empty desks in their room. They are obliged to welcome and teach every student even though they have no control over who does homework or who comes to class. However, they do have control over how they use formative assessment. When formative assessments are given along the way, they help teachers know what students need and also give students ideas on how to improve. They feed teachers and, more important, feed students so they can grow. That is a lot of control, and a lot of power (14-15).

I love that. Feeds teachers. Feeds students. It’s about growth. It’s about empowering students to grow. Beautiful.

Finally, she asks what our own definition of assessment is, and to consider that how we define it impacts how we grade and give feedback (15). It would be great if you helped flesh out your definition of assessment in the  comment section, although all other comments are also welcome.

I am looking forward to the empowerment ahead in the rest of the book. Join us!

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