It is critically important at the outset to establish a clear vision for formative assessment and communicate a consistent message to the professional community and the public. The definition of formative assessment that research supports as having the power to improve student learning states that formative assessment is, at its core, a process that requires significant change in instructional practice.
At initial meetings held in Syracuse City School District, it was apparent that the term formative assessment had different meanings and interpretations. (This is consistent with what NYCC project staff members have seen in the field.) To support the development of a consistent message about the Formative Assessment Project, the focus of the first six months of work by both the Formative Assessment Leadership team and the math coaches group focused on ensuring common understanding and agreement on what formative assessment is and is not. Syracuse City School District ultimately adopted the CCSSO formative assessment definition, and used the formative assessment model, developed by Margaret Heritage of the Assessment and Accountability Content Center (AACC), to define key characteristics of classroom formative assessment practice.
- Taking the time to establish agreement on the definition of formative assessment is critical, and should not be underestimated. Significant time is required to “unlearn” and “re-learn” key ideas about learning and cognition to develop a definition of formative assessment that is aligned with the research. 6-12 months is not unreasonable.
- The formative assessment literature offers different ways to organize key characteristics of classroom formative assessment practice. However, in the early stages of this project, project participants reported that seeing multiple ways of “slicing” formative assessment was confusing.
- During the first year of the project in particular, participants in NYCC professional development sessions benefited from pictures of teachers doing classroom formative assessment. NYCC project staff members were unable to find examples of teachers in the United States that showed exemplary formative assessment practices on videotape or on the internet. NYCC project staff turned to a public teacher resource in the United Kingdom, Teachers TV, for these pictures of practice.
- Users of formative assessment benefit from increased knowledge of a wide range of topics, including assessment literacy, data use, application of content standards, student intervention practices, and the relationship between formative assessment and school improvement planning. Gains in one of these areas influence gains in other areas. Recognizing this in the early phases of program development helped NYCC project staff target professional development strategies to support coaches and building leaders on a range of topics related to successful formative assessment implementation.
- In an effort to support immediate “action,” early professional development sessions with Syracuse math coaches focused on formative assessment techniques, such as traffic lights, exit slips, and response cards. These activities proved to be more useful later on, once coaches and teachers better understood the research and practices related to other formative assessment practices, such as aligning instruction to learning goals and providing targeted feedback on learning outcomes. A lesson learned from this experience is the importance of providing strong research on all aspects of formative assessment in order to inform the use of even more simple evidence gathering techniques.
- Begin with one comprehensive model of formative assessment that includes the necessary components from the research. Ensure that participants have clarity about both the model and how it aligns with the research before introducing new frameworks or models of formative assessment.
- During early stages of the project ensure that there are ample opportunities for users to see pictures of formative assessment practices through the use of DVDs, internet resources or site visits. Seeing pictures of practice was the most significant factor in changing participants’ perceptions about what is possible in a classroom in which the teacher applies multiple attributes of formative assessment.
- Formative assessment supports other school improvement strategies such as increased assessment literacy, effective classroom data use, quality instruction and increased rigor. Early in the project, help teachers and teacher leaders see how various improvement initiatives are connected, and how improving skills in one area will enhance their knowledge and skills in related areas. In this way, formative assessment can be a strategy to help the district address urgent improvement needs.