Friday, April 22, 2011

Formative Assessment

It's been ten days since my last post. The reason is that it's coming down to crunch time for a book manuscript I've promised to deliver to the Harvard Education Press. No, it's not my own book, not really. This one will be called New Frontiers in Formative Assessment, and it contains twelve chapters by different authors working in education. I'm just the person who recruited them to the task, keeps hounding them, reviews and sends back their chapters, tries to decide how to cut the 28 figures per chapter they want to the 3 or 4 figures per chapter Harvard wants...and oh, yes, I need to write the introduction and conclusion.

I do have a co-editor, Daniel T. Hickey from Indiana University, who is actually an expert on formative assessment, while I'm an expert on... um... well, I'm trying to help make the writing of teachers and academics interesting and accessible to a general education audience. Dan's writing a chapter of his own, and he'll help with the first and last chapters as well.

Formative assessment, or assessment for learning, is the practice of constantly probing and monitoring what students understand in order to make adjustments to one's teaching. Ideally, it's what goes on in the classroom every day, as the teacher asks questions, walks around listening to student conversations, designs a mini-pop quiz to see if she got a point across, and then makes plans for the next day based on what she's learned. In reality, formative assessment is hard to do, and the twelve projects described in our book have all labored to come up with ways of supporting this teacher work. The examples come from math, science, and literature classrooms, and about half of them rely on the clever, integrated use of technology tools. In fact, all the classroom examples present tools, from computer programs that gather student responses in real time to simple templates for choosing what math problems to use next or how to plan a lesson.

Maybe this sounds a bit dry to those of you who aren't immersed in education and data as I am, but think of it this way. A classroom with good formative assessment is one where you don't have one set of students incredibly bored because they already know all this and another set completely lost because they're missing some basic understanding. How much more efficient schooling would be if teachers could spend most of their time working right at the edge of their students' knowledge!

For me, an ideal image of formative assessment is a parent sitting with a child who is learning to read. Together the parent and child have chosen an attractive, interesting book, one the child wants to master. Maybe the parent has read it aloud once or twice already, modeling the task for the child. As the child starts sounding his way out through the sentences, the parent helps by pointing to words, by giving hints and encouragement, or by asking the child to repeat a given line. If the child tires, the parent may step in to read every other page. When the book is done, the parent celebrates the child's achievement and is in a great position to choose the next book they will read together.

So back to work. I'll talk to you again when I emerge.

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