Data Driven Duds: The Problem with Formative Assessment

Monday, January 30, 20177:48 PM

Who is assessment for? That’s a fundamental question for any teacher and any assignment--what data or feedback does this work provide and to whom? How? What comes next? Why?

These types of questions are essential in making sure that our teaching and assessment is meaningful. Assigning thirty projects and getting the same thirty results is a recipe, not a demonstration of learning, as the cliche goes.

In my school, the buzzwords of formative and summative assessment have always been important in our planning, instruction, and assessment. Technology, too, often plays a role as we explore new tools to make assessment and data collection easier and more effective. As a teacher and coach, I work with students and teachers on implementing technology into teaching and learning, and have thought a lot about the value of formative assessment.

As great as a formative assessment tool or strategy may be, it’s a dud if the data is not used to drive future instruction and learning. Too often, we are so distracted by the shine of new edtech and engagement that we don’t take advantage of the powerful data they can help communicate.

Defining Terms

At its core, formative assessment is for the learner--it provides feedback to the learner about how to meet desired outcomes. It can also provide feedback to the teacher for reteaching and to inform further planning. It doesn’t need--and usually doesn’t get--a grade; it’s assessment for learning and growth.

If formative assessment takes place primarily during learning, summative assessment is the larger demonstration of that learning. In today’s educational world, it’s the quiz, test, project, or paper. It’s the thing that’s due and gets graded.

While all assessment should provide meaningful, timely, and specific feedback to students, typically summative assessment marks the end of a period of learning. Formative assessment drives the learning forward.

This quote from Robert Stake describes formative and summative assessment better than I ever could. The image is from PD Mosaic.

For more reading about formative and summative assessment, I enjoyed ASCD’s What Teachers Really Need to Know About Formative Assessment by Laura Greenstein, "A Visual Chart on Summative vs. Formative Assessment" from Educational Technology and Mobile Learning, and the 2014 Hanover Research Study on the impact of formative assessment.

Assessment for Learning

If formative assessment is intended to improve learning, it needs to produce meaningful data and feedback. The exit ticket is a common practice for closure and formative assessment, but it’s only really useful if the teacher reviews the exit ticket and uses the data to inform future plans. Whether it helps redesign a whole lesson, demonstrate whole class understanding, or provide data about specific students, it needs to provide actionable data.

This means that whether it’s paper or an online game, we need to know how to look at data. For many teachers--me included--that’s not something that was ever part of classes or training Sure, I can give feedback to writing, track some trends on multiple choice, and interpret the big picture results, but it’s not an easy skill. Using data to inform instruction and interpreting data should be something that drives more conversations in schools and professional learning.

A Kahoot! game or other online tool may be engaging, challenging, and offer opportunities for valuable learning, but it’s power is intensely limited if we’re not looking at the data it has to offer, too.

“We Aren't Using Assessments Correctly”

After starting this article, I came across John Hattie’s 2015 article on Education Week, “We Aren't Using Assessments Correctly.” Hattie, best known for his work with Visible Learning, explains that the way we use summative and formative assessment in schools is often misguided. Hattie writes:

“The major purpose of assessment in schools should be to provide interpretative information to teachers and school leaders about their impact on students, so that these educators have the best information possible about what steps to take with instruction and how they need to change and adapt . . . Until we see tests as aids to enhance teaching and learning, and not primarily as barometers of how much a student knows now, on this day, on this test, then developing more tests will add little, and will remain an expensive distraction . . .”

Hattie sums up my feelings perfectly, and says it so much better than I ever could. His article is great and really emphasizes the whys of assessment. It’s also important to talk about the hows. There are so many ways to assess students and to collect data. 

I’m particularly fond of tools like Google Forms (see Using Data for Better Learning with Google Forms) and other free, engaging tools provide assessment opportunities. No matter your choice, make sure that you can take action to help students better understand and improve their learning. Strategies for making formative assessment matter are worth exploring to make sure that the assessment matters beyond the teacher.

What are your favorite strategies for formative assessment or using data to drive instruction? What are the challenges of formative assessment? Share your thoughts in the comments or on Twitter @MrSchoenbart.

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