Monday, June 01, 2009

Evolving Teaching with Formative Assessments

I found a very thoughtful article by Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam hosted at Phi Delta Kappa called "Inside the Black Box: Raising Standards Through Classroom Assessment." The article summarizes the authors' research in attempting to answer these questions:
  • Is there evidence that improving formative assessment raises standards?
  • Is there evidence that there is room for improvement?
  • Is there evidence about how to improve formative assessment?
The answer, they say, is a clear yes to all three. They make the point that teaching is currently largely about management, and more attention is paid to the bureaucratic duties than teaching effectiveness. The recommendation is to do more than stick a few assessment pieces onto the existing structure like ornamentation:
The research studies [...] show very clearly that effective programs of formative assessment involve far more than the addition of a few observations and tests to an existing program. They require careful scrutiny of all the main components of a teaching plan. Indeed, it is clear that instruction and formative assessment are indivisible.
As an example of the collision between management and teaching, consider the following example, from the paper.

One common problem is that, following a question, teachers do not wait long enough to allow pupils to think out their answers. When a teacher answers his or her own question after only two or three seconds and when a minute of silence is not tolerable, there is no possibility that a pupil can think out what to say.

There are then two consequences. One is that, because the only questions that can produce answers in such a short time are questions of fact, these predominate. The other is that pupils don't even try to think out a response. Because they know that the answer, followed by another question, will come along in a few seconds, there is no point in trying.
So here, the assessment (asking questions) is deemed ineffective. "What emerges very clearly here is the indivisibility of instruction and formative assessment practices."

The article closes with advice on implementation:
What teachers need is a variety of living examples of implementation, as practiced by teachers with whom they can identify and from whom they can derive the confidence that they can do better. They need to see examples of what doing better means in practice.
Assessment directors or coordinators will recognize this as good advice. Training everyone to re-think their teaching in a mass re-education project isn't likely to work. It takes time and focus, diffusing knowledge out from local experts who are trusted. This difficulty is due to the individualized nature of the problem--every teacher has to find ways that work for him or her, for his or her subject area. There is no BandAid fix:
This study suggests that assessment, as it occurs in schools, is far from a merely technical problem. Rather, it is deeply social and personal.
This account rings true to me, and underlines what teachers and many in the assessment profession already know--that it's not enough to mandate "assessment" from on high and expect anything good from it. Approaching the problem as a bureaucratic exercise leads naturally to "assessments" of the same time--reams of statistics dissociated from the practice of teaching and learning. Actual improvement has to start with more personal motivations--"yes, I care about how my students learn." Leaders can move an institution in that direction, but I don't think it can be mandated and then considered solved.


  1. Anonymous7:55 PM

    Teacher Study Groups are one way of making educational change more personal. Our study group read Transformative Assessment by Popham last year. Teachers worked in teams to present the chapters for our twice monthly meetings, which take place from 7:15 - 8:15 before the school day begins at 8:20. Members of the study group are highly motivated to improve their formative asssessment procedures.
    This year we have been investigating the 5 "pillars" of formative assessment (clarifying learning objectives, providing timely feedback, devising better activities and improving questioning, encouraging student ownership of learning, and using peers as resources. We divided up these strategies with grade and content area teachers agreeing to present them in a series of five study group sessions. Next, our administrators are going to present two sessions on data collection. Finally, each teacher will develop an action plan to address how they will improve formative assessment in their own teaching and collect data to analyze the effectiveness of their additional formative assessment strategies.

  2. Interesting comment. Do the teachers work at the structure level (e.g. with theory and procedure), or do they also delve into actual student work (e.g. papers, test results) in their deliberations?