- “The Fundamentals of Formative Assessment” in What Teachers Really Need to Know About Formative Assessment by Laura Greenstein
- How People Learn, chapter 6
“While formative assessment and summative assessment serve the same learning goals, the former is an ongoing process and the latter is a finale: the finish line at the end of the race.” This observation made in “The Fundamentals of Formative Assessment” really resonated with me. The chapter discussed the benefits of formative versus summative assessment, and I think that quote really sums up the difference between the two for me. I’ve never heard of formative assessment before, although now that I’ve read about it, I think that many of my teachers (and often many of my favorites) used these sort of methods.
The first point the chapter makes is that formative assessment is student-focused and although I think some people think that student-focused teaching in classrooms is intuitive, it’s not always. Some teachers don’t realize that students learn differently, and don’t adjust accordingly. The second point the chapter makes is that formative assessment is instructionally informative. I think for a long time I thought those “pre-assessments” were a way of shaming us into paying attention because our attention was now centered on how much we didn’t know. Later on, I realized the teacher was gauging what we knew and what we didn’t, so that he or she wouldn’t repeat what we obviously knew (and waste everyone’s time) and really concentrate on what we didn’t. The third point the chapter makes was that formative assessment is outcomes based. Formative assessment is all about achieving goals rather than determining if the student met that goal. If students don’t know what’s expected of them, it’s difficult to do well. It’s also difficult to do well when a student isn’t getting feedback on their work. How are they to know how they should improve if the teacher isn’t telling them? Along the same lines, how does a student know they’re doing well and should continue with this sort of thinking if the teacher isn’t telling them so? I always thought it was backwards when students took a test and they didn’t do well, and teachers gave no feedback and spent no time making sure the obvious problem was corrected. It was often blamed on the student (and although there may be times the student should shoulder the blame), sometimes teachers simply didn’t realize the students weren’t grasping the concepts. Math tests for me were only easy if they involved memorization; the study guides had a particular type of problem, and if I could memorize the pattern, then I was good to go. I got the A on test, and that’s the goal, isn’t it? But shouldn’t the goal be that I learned how to do that particular type of problem, and if I hadn’t gotten that A, what would have been done to fix it?
One thing I’m glad this chapter addressed was standardized testing because I believe that it’s hard for teachers to incorporate formative assessment when there are benchmarks they have to meet. For example, in Mrs. Chavez’s English class example, I think those activities were great; they engaged the students and make them critically think about what they read. But that may take a lot of time; a few class periods, depending on how long she plans. A state test might ask for an example of a character trait, but it’s not going to ask what events led to Holden being a sardonic and misanthropic cynic and that it’s all about cause-and-effect. I’m not saying that there aren’t teachers who can’t teach in a formative assessment style and still get the job done, but there are a lot that can’t, and therein lies the problem.
How People Learn, chapter 6, had a quote that stuck out to me right away: “Everyone expects much more from today’s schools than was expected 100 years ago.” I think people expect much more from today’s schools than they did ten years ago, let alone 100. I had kids coming into the library asking me for books on citations and they were in elementary school. I didn’t learn citations until eighth grade, and that was standard. So even though we bemoan the state of our educational system, sometimes I have to take a step back and examine the fact that our schools and educational tenets are changing so rapidly (do they even teach cursive anymore? because I had to learn that in fourth grade and it was the bane of my existence) that it’s difficult to keep up, both on students’ and teachers’ parts.
This chapter focused on having a learning environment that is learner-centered, knowledge-centered, assessment-centered and community-centered. First, in regards to learner-centered environments, I’m really glad this chapter addressed students’ prior understandings, beliefs, cultural values, etc., and how teachers need to respect that and “build a bridge” between that and what they’re learning. So often, I think that students are taught they are to be a tabula rasa, so to speak, when it comes to school, and bringing in background experiences can be an embarrassment. This is also connected to the knowledge-center environment in that students build new knowledge off of prior knowledge, so it’s imperative for teachers to realize what prior knowledge students already have. An interesting point I came across was that of students becoming “metacognitive” in the sense that they know that new information should be making sense, and if it isn’t, then they should ask questions. Asking questions is difficult for a lot of students because they feel embarrassed, and by emphasizing that asking questions is part of a process, and it should feel second nature because they don’t understand, is something that I really hadn’t thought of before. Students shouldn’t just be learning math; they should be learning to think mathematically. Assessment-centered environments emphasize students’ goals when it comes to assessments, and that feedback and revision are critical. Feedback has always been important to me because how am I supposed to learn if I’m not being told that what I’m doing is good or not? My tenth grade English teacher used to give us vocabulary quizzes every week. We had to not only tell the meaning of the word, but spell it correctly and use it in a sentence correctly based on a grammar rule we were learning that week. If we got it incorrect, we had to fix it and then explain why it was incorrect. There was simply no way I wasn’t going to learn unless I didn’t do the revisions based on his feedback. I thought an interesting point this chapter introduced was community-centered environments and the effects of classroom and school communities. Everyone can probably relay a story of not asking a question for fear of seeming stupid, or having boys say you shouldn’t be in that class (I was told that freshman year of high school, when myself and another girl were in a drafting class of 24 other boys). How discouraging are those two scenarios and how detrimental are they to the learning process? (Very, would be the answer.) How much a student feels a part of the classroom, school, and wider communities is going to effect how they learn. Ultimately, though, and I’m glad the chapter addressed this, is that it’s hard to align all of these together. It’s not just going to have to be at only the classroom-level, either; it’s going to have to be a school-wide overhaul as well. And that is always a difficult thing.