Thursday, October 20, 2005

Formative Assessment at the Forefront

Last week on behalf of NCTE I attended the ETS Invitational Assessment Conference. I came away heartened by the emphasis of the presentations. The good news is that the focus was squarely on formative assessment, in particular on diagnostic formative assessment.

Formative assessment seeks to find how students are progressing toward learning goals. Diagnostic formative assessment adds the feature of suggesting what needs next to be done by teacher and student to improve that progress. Intelligent systems, for example, are being developed for physics and mathematics to guide students who approach a problem in an ineffective way to use an alternative strategy. More than one speaker cautioned about distinguishing between commercial assessments that claim to be formative but offer only accountability uses, such as for benchmarking, and formative assessments that supply useable information for teaching and learning.

I thought during the conference about the multiple ways that teachers of English use diagnostic assessment all the time, even if we do not use that label. The issue, however, is that the evidence of that diagnostic assessment and of its effects on learning is sometimes implicit rather than explicit and sometimes not traced so that teachers can make claims about the impact of their pedagogies. We have also not yet devised ways in which teacher diagnostic assessment can be scaled for systematic use, with documented results, for public understanding and use in accountability decisions.

As NCTE focuses in the coming year on teacher professional development, teachers will be able to make more visible the ways in which they develop their pedagogical expertise over time. Teachers will be able to document how certain professional development activities contribute to their practice and the impact of that practice on student learning.

I hope that some teachers will choose to document the diagnostic formative assessment practices that they use. For example, if a middle grades teacher used the ReadWriteThink lesson entitled “Reciprocal Revision: Making Peer Feedback Meaningful,” she could trace how peer comments pointed to changes that writers then chose to make in actual pieces of student writing. Students who learn through effective teaching how to ask good questions and make useful comments about writing affirm the pedagogy of peer review.

The issue then becomes documenting the collective effectiveness of this diagnostic practice so that it can be part of the wider teacher capacity building agenda and one aspect of the way that teacher effectiveness and student learning outcomes are assessed. Summative assessments used for accountability purposes need alternatives that are established, documented, and made public in a systematic way. NCTE members may over time become committed to providing knowledge about their diagnostic assessment practices first for the purpose of improved learning in individual classrooms and then for collective action, including influencing the future of both formative and summative assessment. We start where we are, individually in our classrooms, but I believe that we need to continue collectively to influence policies about assessment and accountability.

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