Classroom Assessment: Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed and Something Blue

My daughter got married this spring and she reminded me of that tradition new brides often follow by wearing something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue as a good luck talisman. Allow me to take a twist on this familiar rhyme to share some observations and ideas about advancing classroom assessment literacy AND as we call it, formative instructional practices.

Something Old

In 2002, assessment guru Rick Stiggins presented a paper about the state of classroom assessment. He lamented that although significant investments and technical advances have been made in large-scale assessments, the same is not true for classroom assessment, which has a far deeper impact on student learning. Why did efforts to help teachers and leaders embrace effective formative assessments fail to take hold? Stiggins concluded that as a profession, educators were not nearly as assessment literate as they needed to be upon entering the testing/accountability wave of the new millennium. More than a decade later, educators are still not where they need to be as we embark on a new era of measuring student growth.

Something New

The fact is most educators have not been well-trained or well-supported in developing their assessment acumen. Teachers and leaders need advanced skills in formative instructional practices (FIP) to be prepared for new learning standards and evaluation systems.

Formative instructional practices are a marriage between instruction and assessment. It’s an interdependent system where what is taught and evidence of student learning form an ongoing feedback loop. Using these practices well requires careful attention to what and how evidence of student learning is collected, so that you have accurate information to use. Gathering and effectively using assessment information really is the heart and soul of FIP.

So what is new in assessment literacy? Personal accountability and a sense of urgency. The need for “high skills” in collecting and documenting evidence of student learning has gotten personal—and fast. Educators are being judged by the ways they are able to use reliable information to inform their practice and produce student gains. Teachers need the right assessment strategies to guide and predict growth. And, they need measures of growth to be meaningful. Every educator I know is driven to influence student learning, and they want to be able to show it. They just aren’t sure how to do it well.

It’s also time to rethink the way we help teachers develop and refine their classroom assessment practices. We need to support them in the “FIP way,” helping them set their own learning targets, collect and document evidence of growth, analyze their results, and gather effective feedback. Using a blended learning approach, educators can now engage in lessons online when it is most convenient and then later discuss what was learned, how it aligns with current practice, and what commitment to make in terms of their own professional growth. This is both a practical and cost-effective way to build individual and collective capacity around FIP.

Something Borrowed

The FIP work that Ohio is so intently focused on is borrowed from the work that authors and researchers such as Dylan Wiliam, Rick Stiggins, and Jan Chappius have forwarded for over the past 20 years. Although their collective mission has been on building assessment literacy, Wiliam has been laser-focused on the daily, ongoing ways of knowing where students are in their learning while Stiggins and Chappius have focused on assessment accuracy and use. Each of their contributions has served to shine a light on skills that educators have long been needing to hone and need now.

Something Blue

My observations are not meant to make you feel deflated about the challenges around growing classroom assessment literacy. I think there is a path to success for all educators to start to systematically build classroom practices where measuring student growth becomes routine. Consider this “BLUE” approach.

Bite off the most critical FIP component first. If you start by deconstructing the essential learning targets of the core standards for your grade/subject, you will be far more knowledgeable about the learning expectations of those standards and will have organized the most important learning into a progression. This is really the best first step in designing pre- and post-assessments.

Learn how to use these learning targets to construct solid assessments. The match of targets to the right assessment is essential for increasing the accuracy of the information you are collecting. Use test blueprints to assure good sampling.

Use this accurate assessment information to plan your instruction and to provide effective feedback that helps students know precisely where they are in their learning journey as well as next steps to accelerate their growth.

Expect growth, both from your students and in your own learning. Student growth happens across time—at different rates and to varying degrees—but you can accelerate growth when students are prepared to be successful co-navigators. If you measure and respond to growth indicators across the school year—not just at the beginning and end of the year—you will exceed your own expectations.

The road to strong formative instructional practices is a long one; maybe longer than Rick Stiggins had hoped it would be. But, the time is right and the need is here to help all educators accelerate teaching and learning.

Mary Peters is Senior Director of Powerful Practices at Battelle for Kids.