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December 1, 2006
Vol. 64
No. 4

Supporting Change in Classroom Assessment

Adopting formative assessment practices can be a stretch for teachers. Here's how one group of science teachers found its way.

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Formative assessment—ongoing assessment used to guide students as they learn as opposed to assessment used to evaluate learning at the end of a teaching cycle—has been receiving much attention in education. The key characteristic of formative assessment (also calledassessment for learning, everyday assessment, and embedded assessment) is that a teacher regularly gathers information about students' skills and understandings and uses that information not only to give each student feedback about key next steps in learning, but also to decide on the next steps in teaching (Sadler, 1989).
Formative assessment practices help science teachers guide students in developing scientific habits of mind and also gauge students' conceptions—or misconceptions—about scientific ideas. Research indicates that formative assessment is a key factor in raising student achievement (Black, Harrison, Lee, Marshall, & Wiliam, 2003; Black & Wiliam, 1998). And more and more schools and districts are beginning to initiate formative assessment practices in science classrooms.
From a teacher's perspective, changing assessment practices within the classroom is neither as straightforward nor as easy as it is sometimes portrayed to be. Any change in classroom practice requires a reexamination of well-established routines and techniques, and possibly of the teacher's self-image. Negotiating change can be difficult, even in pursuit of an unquestionably attractive goal. And there is no uniform approach to modifying assessment practices that works for every science teacher.
We became more aware of how such issues play out for thoughtful science teachers while working with CAPITAL (Classroom Assessment Project to Improve Teaching and Learning), a research project launched at Stanford University in 1999 and supported by the National Science Foundation. Project researchers worked with 25 teachers over three years to learn how experienced science teachers develop their teaching practice while trying to improve assessment in their classrooms. Participating teachers met in small groups to exchange ideas about what they were learning and what they were trying out in their classrooms (Atkin, Coffey, Moorthy, Sato, & Thibeault, 2005). When appropriate, the research team facilitated meetings, provided information about assessment practices, and shared stories about how other teachers involved in CAPITAL were integrating new assessment practices.
A closer look at the experiences of one of these teacher groups illustrates how integrating formative assessment into teaching is a dynamic, nonlinear process that leads to different outcomes for different teachers.

The Teachers' Process

Several middle school science teachers from Union City, California, began meeting in fall 2000. Each had several years experience teaching 7th and 8th grade science, primarily life science and physical science. For two years, the group met monthly, with their meetings facilitated by a researcher from CAPITAL. Discussion focused on the teachers' common purpose of reflecting on and improving their classroom assessment practices. The group also attended two three-day summer institutes at Stanford University in 2001 and 2002.

Strengthening Students' Self-Assessment

A hallmark of formative assessment is that it involves students in their own learning through self-assessment and peer-assessment. One way to strengthen self-assessment is to create rubrics with students that clarify expectations for their work. During one of the group's first meetings, Joni Gilbertson shared a new rubric she had created to assess the models of an animal cell that each of her 7th graders was building. The rubric listed everything that had to be present in each model, including a category for content (such as the variety of organelles and their functions, neatly labeled) and a category for creativity. Drawing on an earlier group conversation about self-assessment, Joni had provided a space on the rubric for the students to assess their own work in addition to a space for her comments and scores. Allowing students to assess their own projects before turning them in was a new experience for her, and she did not know what to expect.
At the next group meeting, Joni eagerly described her experience using the rubric with her class. While going over the rubric with students, she had realized that her initial emphasis on neatness and creativity would not help her see whether students grasped the essential structure and functions of an animal cell and did not focus students' attention on discovering and clarifying these ideas. So Joni redesigned the rubric, placing more emphasis on student explanations of the cell organelles' structures and functions. She then planned a day when students could bring their completed models to class and use the rubric to help them revise the models. As Joni circulated among students that day, she heard lively conversations about the parts of the cell. Students were using technical vocabulary to explain to one another how their models showed the working processes of cell organelles.
Joni reported to the group how satisfying it was to interact with students about their projects and to see how they used her on-the-spot feedback (which she normally would have written on the finished project) to make appropriate improvements. She felt more focused in her feedback to students and realized she was helping students deepen their understandings by prompting revisions. She reveled in the satisfied expression of a boy who typically did not complete his work on time as he handed his completed model to her at the end of class. Joni was pleased that the project had evolved from one that favored students who had access to additional resources at home to one that enabled all students to successfully construct a model in class. Listening to students' conversations as they worked also gave her a window into how students' understanding of cell processes was developing.

Learning from Other Teachers

The other teachers were impressed with Joni's process: Having students check their work against a rubric and exchange ideas as they worked had led to both higher student engagement and better projects. Vicki Baker, Tracey Liebig, and Elaine Fong—who all taught at the same middle school—decided to use a similar self-assessment process to help evaluate students' booklets about chemical elements. In previous years, the teachers had used traditional letter grades to evaluate this booklet; they now realized that students might need more feedback to construct a high-quality booklet that incorporated crucial science concepts.
Vicki Baker showed the group the rubric she was planning to use for her students' element booklets. As the group looked at the project requirements and the scale of 1 to 10 that students would use to assess their projects, the CAPITAL facilitator asked, “How do the students know what quality of work a 10 or a 7 or a 4 represents?” The group discussed a variety of ways Vicki might help the students understand the expectations of quality for this project.
Vicki chose to show her students exemplary booklets from previous years and have them use her rubric to score these booklets. The class then talked about the example booklets and agreed on project expectations and what level of quality each point on the rubric scale would represent. Before Vicki's students submitted their booklets for grading, they engaged in peer discussion and had time afterward to revise their individual booklets on the basis of the feedback they received. Vicki found that, through clarifying expectations with her students by developing the rubric and facilitating the feedback sessions, she gained clarity on the learning goals of this project. She better connected her instruction and assessment to the core scientific ideas and skills involved. And the element booklets she received after this process were of higher quality and completed by a higher percentage of the class than in previous years.
Tracey Liebig chose a different strategy for clarifying quality expectations. She used warm-up questions at the beginning of class that often reviewed the previous day's work or previewed that day's lesson. Tracey asked students to comment on one another's responses, clarify their peers' comments, and offer alternative ideas. The class discussed what high-quality responses to these questions would sound like. Through this formative assessment practice, Tracey better understood how students were processing the content and ideas she was teaching.

Varying Approaches to Formative Assessment

As the group continued meeting and learning, the teachers began to approach formative assessment differently, depending on their personal beliefs about learning and evaluation. At a summer institute the group attended at Stanford, a middle school science teacher described how he requires students to improve their work until it reaches a point that he judges to be acceptable, which is a kind of formative assessment. The teacher believed that revising work gives students the opportunity to master key concepts and skills, regardless of how long the process takes.
Vicki was intrigued with this idea of revision. The next school year, she began using a strategy she called “Acceptable/Not Acceptable” to assess student work. A grade of Acceptable meant that the work had reached the standards established for the project. Not Acceptable meant that the assignment needed to be revised until it was judged Acceptable. There was no middle ground. In Vicki's view, “If something is worth learning during my class, I should make sure that everyone has been given a chance to learn it, and revisit it if they didn't learn it.” Other teachers also adopted this strategy, finding that it helped them provide clearer expectations and more consistent feedback to students than did traditional letter grading.
Elaine Fong, however, was reluctant to use the Acceptable/Not Acceptable scheme. She believed it would be unfair to students who completed work accurately and on time if she allowed other students who initially turned in substandard work to eventually earn the same high grade. She also knew that some of her high-achieving students were capable of completing polished, high-quality work and feared that they would lose their incentive to do so if their grades were based solely on mastery of scientific concepts and skills and did not take into account the quality of presentation.
Elaine wanted her assessments to reflect the effort students put into their work and to reward those who demonstrated care and precision. Others in the group wanted their assessments to focus more on whether students showed a good grasp of science concepts and skills. The group's exploration of this issue helped Elaine adopt formative assessment practices in a way that fit her teaching values. She eventually used the Acceptable/Not Acceptable approach but modified her rubric so that it also measured aesthetic components of student work.

Guidelines for Supporting Deep Change

Watching this group of teachers wrestle with assessment practices during two years gave us insight into what it takes to bring about lasting change in professional practice. Those of us who provide professional development and hope to facilitate change must remember the risky and even personal nature of such change. It can be painful for teachers to admit the need for change and distressing to give up the comforts of familiarity. At one of the last group meetings, Vicki reflected,Because of what we've been doing, I know my students in ways that I never did before. It's almost scary how you can teach this many years and then suddenly feel like you're jumping off a cliff. . . . It's exhilarating, but it's scary too.
Vicki's words reveal that the change process often involves more than just introducing new classroom practices. Vicki's thinking about her professional work changed, her interactions with students changed, and she changed as a person.
We offer the following three guidelines for educators supporting science teachers as they work to transform long-standing assessment practices:

Find a Focus

Encourage teachers to identify a few assessment-related practices that interest them and to examine their teaching and plan changes with these specific practices in mind. Areas of focus might include creating questions that reveal students' conceptions of a phenomenon, encouraging students to assess one another's scientific reasoning, or examining the role that grading plays in the overall culture of the classroom. Enabling teachers to choose which aspects of practice they want to work on allows for the natural variation among teachers' beliefs, values, interests, and comfort levels with change.

Start with Current Teacher Practice

Start the change process by examining teachers' current views and practices, rather than by looking to an abstract vision of “best practice.” Help teachers identify specifically what is working in their classrooms and what they hope to change. Encourage teachers you're working with to share samples of student work and videotapes of their classes to help focus discussion about student learning and work. It is important, of course, that you and others respect each teacher's work and teaching philosophy. Teachers' decisions about their practices are guided and shaped by their personalities, their values, and their vision of what kind of teacher they hope to become.

Build Trust for Collaboration

When teachers collaborate with one another, they have the opportunity to share expertise, exchange practices, and raise questions that help them see new possibilities. But collaboration does not just happen. Teachers need to spend time together to build trust so they can be candid about false starts and doubts, as well as about occasions for genuine pride and even exaltation. Professional development providers can model for teacher groups how to closely examine teaching practice and how to exchange questions with other teachers that prompt reflective thinking.

Seeing the “Development” in PD

The teachers described here are still actively using and developing practices that include students in assessment that supports their learning. Some group members have facilitated professional development with preservice teacher groups and in other settings. The teachers report that, because of the ways they have shared their own assessment development, more teachers in their schools have adopted peer and self-assessment. Their science colleagues at school regularly talk about how they know students are learning, not just about grading students' work.
Through our work in CAPITAL, we realized that the kind of deliberate change in practice we saw cannot necessarily be accomplished “efficiently” and must be based on more than superficial knowledge of a strategy or innovation. Those of us involved with professional development must focus on development and accept that it takes time to make an idea or practice one's own. Propagating a new and promising idea like formative assessment has its place in improving education; such propagation can whet teachers' appetites for change by showing them what is possible. But for such a practice to truly improve science teaching, teachers must internalize the idea and integrate it into everyday practice.

Atkin, J. M., Coffey, J. E., Moorthy, S., Sato, M., & Thibeault, M. (2005).Designing everyday assessment in the science classroom. New York: Teachers College Press.

Black, P., Harrison, C., Lee, C., Marshall, B., & Wiliam, D. (2003).Assessment for learning: Putting it into practice. Buckingham, UK: Open University.

Black, P. J., & Wiliam, D. (1998). Assessment and classroom learning.Assessment in Education, 5(1), 7–74.

Sadler, D. R. (1989). Formative assessment: Revisiting the territory.Assessment in Education, 5(1), 77–84.

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