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K12 makes assessment shifts

Districts increase formative testing to generate real-time data, reduce high-stakes exams
  • PROOF OF PROGRESS—Vancouver Public Schools has substantially increased using formative assessments over the last few years. Teachers receive more clear, up-to-the-minute details of each students’ abilities and, in turn, can better customize instruction.
  • PROOF OF PROGRESS—Vancouver Public Schools has substantially increased using formative assessments over the last few years. Teachers receive more clear, up-to-the-minute details of each students’ abilities and, in turn, can better customize instruction.

Educators in a school district that conducts well-designed formative assessments should be able to accurately predict how students will perform on midterms, finals and high-stakes exams.

A growing number of experts and administrators insist that if a district excels at formative assessment, its students shouldn’t have to sit through so many high-stakes tests.

“We don’t want to wait until that summative or high-stakes test at the end of the year—that does not help us much in our instruction,” says Carol Martin, the director of instruction and intervention at Sylacauga City Schools in Alabama. “We call this the ‘autopsy type’ of testing—you find out after it’s over what happened.”


Sidebar: Opt-out inspires testing change in New York district


Teachers across the country are creating their own more sophisticated formative assessments and using adaptive learning software to generate real-time information on how each of their students are performing—and then to determine who requires enrichment and intervention.

This process provides far more useful information than do high-stakes exams because it measures growth and competency day-to-day, which should be the true priority of instruction, says Larry Ainsworth, a testing expert and author of Common Formative Assessments 2.0.

High-stakes exams provide only a “snapshot” of what students know on a certain day, he says.

“If teachers use formative assessment results as an ongoing measure of how students are doing in their learning trajectory, and use the results to adjust instruction—and if kids are also aware of their assessment results so they can make adjustments in their learning tactics—then they can double, triple and quadruple the learning that goes on,” Ainsworth says.

Students in the driver’s seat

New Hampshire schools had given Smarter Balanced tests in math and English each year to students in grades 3 through 8. Since launching the Performance Assessment of Competency Education (PACE) initiative three years ago, the state has sharply reduced the number of standardized tests taken in about one quarter of its 84 districts.

Now, students in about 20 participating school systems take only the SmarterBalanced English test in grade 3, math in grade 4, and in both subjects in grade 8. The new regimen of formative assessment allows teachers to track students’ progress toward mastery of standards through evaluations that are embedded into everyday instruction.

In traditional project evaluations, for instance, teachers measuring progress might review a checklist with students to see if they have included all required elements, such as a PowerPoint presentation or a glossary of terms.

In a competency system, teachers are expected to push students to focus on the quality of their work, rather than on completing a simple to-do list, says Ellen Hume-Howard, the PACE curriculum director in the New Hampshire Department of Education.

This approach “puts kids in the driver’s seat,” she says. “You’re no longer just assessing kids on lower-level knowledge and recall. You’re asking them to be independent, to make choices, and to apply and transfer their skills.”

Formative assessments shift focus to a students’ growth and away from a single year-end grade or test score—when it’s too late to intervene, says Michael Horn, an assessment expert and co-founder of Clayton Christensen Institute, a think tank with a focus on education.

“The future is more frequent, smaller, less obtrusive assessments that are more helpful for learning,” Horn says. “We know that tests are important, but more useful testing leads to better understanding of what learning we ought to be doing next.”

Don’t grade everything

Computer-based formative assessments allow students to keep track of their own test data and, in reviewing it with educators, monitor their own progress toward learning targets, says Martin, the director of instruction in Sylacauga schools. It also allows the district’s students to be more active participants in parent-teacher conferences.

“We’re trying to take the mystery out of data,” she says. “When students have it in their own folder and can explain their progress to adults, that’s the best-case scenario­.”

Since Sylacauga expanded use of formative assessments, the number of students held back in ninth grade—a rate that had reached 20 percent six years ago—has dropped to under 2 percent. The district held back no seventh- or eighth-graders in 2016-17. Perhaps most significantly, the graduation rate has risen from 78 percent to 92 percent.

Special education students also have benefited. The ability to track their own progress has given them a sense of independence and insight into their own learning that they’ve never had before, says Leslie Bonds, the curriculum facilitator for secondary campuses at Ector County ISD in Texas.

“We’ve seen unbelievable success in that [special ed] population,” Bonds says. “They are better able to make mid-course corrections and they are exposed to higher order, more rigorous questioning—and the long-term effect is more meaningful learning.”

Carolyn Gonzalez, Ector County ISD’s assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, adds that the shift to formative assessment has allowed the district to eliminate two of its four high-stakes tests.

Formative assessments can put students in a better state of mind for learning by allowing them to make mistakes without academic consequences, says Susan M. Brookhart, an educational consultant and testing expert.

“Formative assessments are more powerful because they’re not always graded,” Brookhart says.

“If the feedback you get as you’re learning counts as a grade then it’s not safe to make mistakes or ask questions. And teachers can’t give challenging work because they have to give assignments that are easy enough that most students can do it most of the time.”

Brookhart encourages educators to assess incremental student work—such as when they’re working through a math unit or in the middle of a project—but not grade it.

“If you count those in the final grade, you’ll be making the final grade out of things that are going to change,” she says. “The final grade should reflect what students learned.”

Embedded in instruction

A little more than a year ago, Lyons Township High School, which serves 4,000 students in the Chicago suburbs, guided its teachers in making formative assessment a primary classroom focus.

A major component of this shift was giving students a substantial role in developing test criteria, says Brian Waterman, principal of the school in the Lyons Township High School District.

“Before, students wouldn’t know what it meant to be successful on an assignment or an assessment,” Waterman says. “When they start to understand what teachers are looking for and what should be part of the learning, they’ll be more motivated to work on that.”

For example, one of the school’s biology teachers worked with students to identify benchmarks for success on class assessments. The students started with the district and state standards they were expected to achieve.

The school’s teachers have also formed professional learning communities to continue to refine the formative assessment process. As a result, more English teachers allow students to revise essays several times before grading the paper.

Math teachers also let students retake tests and self-assess their performance, Waterman says.

“Formative assessment is about where I am as a learner and where am I supposed to be and how do I get there,” Waterman says. “The more students understand that—whether it’s academics or social-emotional development—the more successful they’re going to be in all grades.”


Matt Zalaznick is senior associate editor.