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March 1, 2014
Vol. 71
No. 6

Perspectives / The Assessor's Art

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      In his poem "Revelation," Robert Frost talks about the tendency of humans to hide their true identity from others while at the same time hoping that someone will find them out. He counsels, "Those who hide too well away must speak and tell us where they are." In a poem about everything from faith to love, Frost is probably not talking about formative assessment. But he might be, it seems to me. If only students would—or could—"tell us where they are." In the absence of such revelation, the teacher has to practice the assessor's art: find out what students know and can do—and lead each to the next upward step.
      Unlike high-stakes testing—which is used for so many quasi-instructional and contradictory purposes—formative assessment primarily has a strategic instructional purpose. Formative assessment is an ongoing conversation between teacher and students, Carol Ann Tomlinson (p. 10) explains. It is also "the bridge between today's lessons and tomorrow's." In formative assessment, teachers, like detectives, look for clues about students' learning progress. Like doctors, they use diagnostic tests and examine suitable treatment options. Keen observers, they watch what students do, and they devise multiple indirect and direct ways to gather input from them about their thinking. They analyze all this assessment information to show students where they are in relation to skills and understandings they need, and to design instruction that fits.
      In this issue of Educational Leadership, authors discuss multiple strategies that educators can use to plan such a teaching practice. Assessment specialist Jan Chappuis (p. 20) recommends constructing assessment questions that have "instructional traction": questions that can uncover kids' logic, discover what they know and don't know, and probe for misunderstandings and misconceived notions. Dylan Wiliam (p. 16) and Brent Duckor (p. 28) advise how to further learning by phrasing questions that can be answered at a number of different levels and calling on students in such a way as to make sure you are hearing from them all. Other authors describe how to make homework more effective; give actionable feedback; and use quick checks, exit slips, pacing, and wait time (pp. 39, 44, 50).
      In this transitional time before the Common Core assessments are implemented, schools are struggling to get their kids and themselves ready. Some are frantically giving many more non-required interim tests to prepare students for the high-stakes tests; others are studying the standards and overhauling their curriculum. These steps may be necessary, but a number of school chiefs are calling for a more thoughtful, slower pace. The assessments must be fully put into place and the results must first produce valid and reliable data before policymakers decide to extend their use for teacher and principal accountability measures, they note. In his research column this month, Bryan Goodwin (p. 78) also urges caution. He cites Campbell's law: The higher the stakes attached to any measure, the less valid that measure becomes. Primarily this is so because the pressure of high stakes leads to teaching to the test and overemphasizing test scores.
      In a recent research report from Stanford University, Linda Darling-Hammond and Frank Adamson express the hope that the quality of standardized assessments will improve substantially if the Common Core consortia live up to their claims. But they also suggest that educators need to be more involved in developing assessments and learning how to use them. Students will reap double benefits if assessment becomes less about the numbers and more about discerning where students are in their learning and then planning lessons accordingly.
      From building relationships to delivering a lesson that is challenging, engaging, and, sometimes, entertaining, teaching is very much a performance art that must be practiced on one's feet. Formative assessment presents another challenge—and requires sophisticated but quieter skills: observation, questioning, reflection. Teachers' daily ongoing practice puts the pieces together—and this practice has more potential to improve learning than all the high-stakes tests put together. It's no revelation, but something we have known all along.
      End Notes

      1 Strauss, V. (2014, January 31). Slow down reforms, say school chiefs in Maryland. The Washington Post. pp. B1–2.

      2 Darling-Hammond, L., & Adamson, F. (2013). Developing assessments of deeper learning: The costs and benefits of using tests that help students learn. Stanford, CA: Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education.

      Marge Scherer has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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