Assessment for Learning: “Formative Assessment is a verb not a noun.”

This post is primarily motivated from my experience of working in an international school that is predominantly influenced by an American model of curriculum and assessment. The debate around assessment and grading is somewhat different in UK schools, and international schools influence by the British system, (if there really is such a thing given the autonomy of the education systems in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland!) and is far more heavily influenced by the work of Paul Black and Dylan William and the subsequent National Strategy for Assessment for Learning that effected all teachers in the UK.

Whilst not advocating the abolition all grading in one fell swoop, for the anguish that it might cause some colleagues in the teaching profession, I do advocate for far less summative assessment especially at the Elementary and Middle School levels, with the gradual phasing out of the practice of grading. As an alternative to graded assignments and tests I advocate frequent peer and self-assessment, continuous oral feedback, and written comments on students work suggesting ways for students to improve their work.

For many teachers, and for some Administrators, it is going to take a fundamental shift in mindset to come to terms with the fact that formative assessment should never be graded! After all formative is a verb not a noun. The references I have read of students “doing a formative” worry me as it displays a lack of understanding of student assessment. In supporting teachers in raising standards we first need to ensure that they understand what formative assessment is per se. Looking over a child’s shoulder and asking them an open-ended question based upon their initial response is formative assessment. Saying “good job” or the alike has no place or value in a modern classroom. How can you improve your work is a formative question and encourages students to think critically. And further giving the student the answer has no benefit to their learning.

Once a piece of work is graded the student, and often the parent, will take little heed of formative comments. It is the teacher’s formative comments that provoke students to delve deeper in the topic. Good formative assessment celebrates the student’s successes but also offers strategies for improvement and advice on how to develop a greater depth of knowledge and understanding. The only grade that could feasibly be awarded to the student is one of a summative nature and this should come only at the end of an assignment. Even then it is imperative that the teacher still offer formative comments and suggest way by which a student might still further improve their work in generic terms that can be readily applied to other assignments and learning experiences.

To my mind the most important assessment data is that generated by a “good” classroom teacher. I contest that summative assessment should only conducted at the end of a unit of study. This is effectively between 6-8 times per year in reality. This might be complemented by end of semester subject assessments/examinations. My only real reason for compromising and not completely advocating the throwing out of grades is because of parents’ expectations. By carrying out sporadic summative assessments it will means that parents will have regularly updated data on their child’s progress and will be able to see learning progress on a learning portal such as gradebook. It is essential that a gradebook system is set up to record summative assessment data, with no more than 10 updates per subject permissible and the removal of any averaging tool. Dr Justin Tarte succinctly demonstrates the problem with averaging grades and supports the extensive research of Professor Guskey at the University of Kentucky. Averages do not in any way reflect learning.

http://www.justintarte.com/2015/06/is-it-time-to-stop-averaging-grades.html

Essentially all Summative tests/exams should be formative in nature. Teachers must modify instruction based upon the performances of their students. Moreover teachers must have a personalized approach when utilizing assessments to inform planning. They should seek to see where there are gaps in learning and understandings across the whole class but also focus on the micro dimension of the individual student. The effective use of formative assessment subsequently informs differentiated planning and instruction.

When assessing student work I would suggest a teacher adopts a strategy considers the quality of the piece of work as it is at a particular time in a particular place. This does not imply that all students should do the same piece of work at the same time but rather than formative feedback should be individualized and personal. In doing so a teacher should model examples of work that the student should aspire to. Give children an opportunity to flourish and improve their academic performance. We don’t all get it right the first time and we should not be afraid to fail. Furthermore, offer help and advice to the student on how to achieve the desired outcome or learning target. Use what you observe and the evidence you collect in planning future lessons.

I have compromised considerably on my philosophy relating to grading in the approach I suggest, as instinctively I would abolish all grading up to Grade 8. However, in recognizing the educational climate and the wishes of parents I offer such compromise in an attempt to encourage a much lesser emphasis on grading and a much great emphasis on learning. After all we continually emphasize real world learning experiences in modern education but perversely seek to grade these experiences.

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