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Making assessments work: your district just overhauled its assessments. Are you sure these improvements are reaching your students?

There's lots of buzz about formative assessment these days; some analysts say this latest byproduct of No Child Left Behind comprises the fastest-growing segment of the education testing market. It's not difficult to understand, given how fundamentally unhelpful most summative tests are when it comes to informing instruction and measuring growth.

"The reason the topic of formative assessment has become so popular in the last year or so is people have realized that testing once a year isn't taking them where they need to go," says Rick Stiggins, founder of The Assessment Training Institute in Portland, Ore.

But there's no accepted definition of what constitutes formative assessment. In theory, it's using periodic assessments of student mastery of concepts to modify instruction. In the classroom it can mean anything from weekly, teacher-created quizzes, common assessments across a district, or shortened forms of the state's summative test given in the months leading up to the high-stakes test.

And behind the catchphrase are a vast slew of formative testing products that promise to improve summative results, and a growing pool of case studies that bear this out. But there is also a growing minority of educators who argue the current conception of formative assessment in the U.S. is merely an "early-warning summative system."

"This approach doesn't prevent failure, but gives you early warning which kids are going to fail," says Dylan Wiliam, the author of much of the leading research on the effectiveness of formative testing, and currently director of the learning and teaching research center at ETS.


The high stakes of failing to make adequate yearly progress means two things: educators can't wait until the end of the year to gauge how they're doing, and they have to be sure that what they're teaching day-to-day equates to what will be required of their students on the state's summative test. Integral to this is the reality that "teachers still struggle to match up what they're doing in the classroom to what's being evaluated on state tests," says Hardin Daniel, vice president of sales and marketing at ThinkLink Learning. His company sells computer-based predictive versions of state summative tests that are given three times each year.

Wyoming approached this fundamental problem with a radical solution: it's throwing out its entire high-stakes testing system and designing a new one that will map closely to what's going on in classrooms. Wyoming will also become one of the first states to offer online formative testing tools to all its districts for free.

"We're trying to align all of our summative tests to state standards," says Cheryl Schroeder, coordinator of standards and assessment at the Wyoming Dept. of Education. "Teachers will finally know what type of material is available to be tested from. This takes the guessing out of it."

The other major advantage to schools, or districts, using these common formative assessments is the potential to reduce the subjectivity that is inherent in classroom assessments. "You can walk into any school system, large or small, and ask to see samples of work that's proficient from five different fourth-grade classrooms. You'll get five radically different qualities of work," says Doug Reeves, chairman of the Center for Performance Assessment. "The only antidote to that is common assessments. Standards, common curriculum, MAPs, are all great ideas, but impotent unless you have common assessments."


Students at Elmore Park Middle School outside of Memphis began using ThinkLink Inc.'s Predictive Assessment Series in December 2002. The 35- to 45-minute tests, which closely mirror the content tested on Tennessee's TCAP tests, immediately rate a child's performance as red, indicating serious deficits, yellow indicating that progress is being made, or green signaling mastery. Students take the ThinkLink tests three times each year: in the fall they measure content from the previous year; mid-year they test content that will be on that year's summative test; and about six weeks before the year-end summative test for predictions about whether the child will reach proficiency.

ThinkLink compares this periodic predictive testing to the painting technique pointillism.

"If you get real close to the painting you can see the individual brushstrokes," says Hardin Daniel, vice president of sales and marketing at ThinkLink. "Every once in a while the teacher needs to back up and get that overall view of, 'How are we doing according to what the state is measuring?'"

Elmore Park Vice Principal John McDonald says the school chose ThinkLink because it needed to improve their value-added, or annual academic gain, scores.

"ThinkLink Learning was a way to identify and address students who were not making at least a year's academic growth in math, reading or English," McDonald says.

The tactic seems to be working. On the state report card Elmore Park raised its grade for value added in math from an 'F' to a 'B' in two years, and raised its value-added grade in reading from 'C' to 'A' in one year.

"We think [the extra testing] has been a significant reason for this improvement," McDonald says. "Not only has it allowed us to identify and remediate student deficits, but it has helped teachers identify gaps or deficits in their teaching."

Administrator buzz about the results has been so positive that what began as an initiative in Title I schools has led to all but three of the 41 elementary and middle schools in Shelby County purchasing ThinkLink from their individual school's budget, says Karen Woodard, testing supervisor for the district.


The results in Elmore Park are a persuasive argument in favor of using a series of formative tests throughout the year that mimic high-stakes tests. But the contrarians in the field argue that too often the results of this kind of testing aren't used to modify instruction on a day-to-day basis.

"What I mean by formative assessment is not assessment that takes place every five to six weeks, but assessment that takes place every 10 seconds," says Wiliam. Wiliam at ETS, and Rick Stiggins at the Assessment Training Institute, argue that teaching teachers how to do more effective assessments on a daily basis is really the key to improving learning, and eventually test scores. "We acknowledge there's a place for these 10-week reviews, but in most instances I regard that as too late."

Here's an example Wiliam gives of how a teacher can improve classroom assessment: Imagine a teacher asks a class of 20 children a question hoping to gauge their understanding of a concept just covered. Six raise their hands to volunteer an answer; the teacher calls on one. Polling one child who volunteers an answer is not an accurate way to assess learning, he argues. In a research ETS is conducting in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland, each student is given a dry-erase board and a marker. When a teacher asks a question, each student must write their answer and then show their board.

"With whiteboards, you can't hide, everybody has to respond," Wiliam says. "Then the teacher has a very quick take on whether the class has understood something."

The idea can be modified to use colored cards or other simple mechanisms, and also requires deep student participation in the assessment discussion. Stiggins calls this assessment for learning, as opposed to assessment of learning, and he argues that most teachers, and principals, don't know how to do it.

"The vast majority of teachers have never been given the opportunity to learn about sound assessment practices," Stiggins says. "And assessment training has been nonexistent in leadership training programs."

That may be changing somewhat. Both Ohio and Illinois have launched programs dedicated to professional development for assessment for learning, Stiggins says.

The bottom line on formative assessments seems to be that the situation that's created the demand for formative testing is far too complex to be solved by a single product, or even a single assessment methodology.

"The whole point is not to have a 'Gotcha!' where people are surprise and embarrassed [by the results of summative tests]," Reeves says. "We need a seamless and morally fair link between assessment and what's happening in the classroom."

Rebecca Sausner is a contributing editor.


Complicating the issue of formative testing is that the definition of the term often varies from vendor to vendor and in districts across the nation. Formative testing seems to mean just about anything that's non-summative. Here's a quick primer on some of the assessment models being pushed in the market-feel free to quibble with the definitions based on which theory you subscribe to!


This is the broadest of the terms relating to non-summative assessments. It generally means "periodic" tests given in the classroom, but that can translate to anything from predictive assessments given at prescribed intervals throughout the year to weekly tests created by a teacher, either from scratch or from a vendor-distributed item bank. "Testing becomes formative when the results are used to adapt teaching to meet needs. It's not about giving the assessments, it's about doing something about the results," says Doug Reeves, chairman of the Center for Performance Assessment.


These assessments closely map what's likely to be asked on any given state's year-end summative test. Predictive assessments are meant to do just that, predict how kids will perform on the state summative test.


This assessment model usually involves statistical analysis of standardized test results that is intended to look at growth, or how much has been learned in a school year. Developed by William Sanders, a University of Tennessee statistician currently with SAS. Value-added assessments can also be used to gauge teacher effectiveness.


A vertical scale links or spans multiple levels of a test and is frequently intended to link scores across multiple grades. Northwest Evaluation Association promotes its equal-interval vertical scale, a value-added assessment model that takes into account the continuum of student learning from grade two through high school. Value-added assessments and the use of vertical scales allow the comparison of apples-to-apples when it comes to test scores. "The great thing about a vertical scale is it allows a teacher to take a test score and immediately go to areas of the curriculum that might be appropriate for the student to learn," says Gage Kingsbury, a researcher at NWEA.


The difficulty of each test item is adjusted based on the student's performance on the previous question. As the student answers items correctly, questions become more difficult, if student answers incorrectly they get easier.


This combines growth and proficiency, sets a growth target for each student that will bring that student to proficiency by a certain point in time. Allows students who are far behind to take several years to reach proficiency, but sets growth targets along the way.


This approach focuses on teaching teachers how to create and effectively use their own high-quality assessments to differentiate instruction. Promoted by Dylan Wiliam at ETS and Rick Stiggins at The Assessment Training Institute.


Assistant Principal Sylvia Lewis and her staff at North Topsail Elementary in Hampstead, N.C., are in high demand these days. Countless speaking engagements, training sessions and journal articles catalogue how their take on differentiated instruction and formative assessments catapulted the Title 1 school's proficiency rating from just below 80 percent to 98.4 in a handful of years.

"We opened the school in 1998, and that first year we did not meet our growth plan according to North Carolina's accountability plan," says Lewis. "We took a look at what our teachers were doing and saw most of them doing whole group instruction, and we didn't see them doing a lot of pre and post-testing."

Fear of being "taken over" by the state if it didn't meet their growth target the next year introduced differentiated instruction to North Topsail in a hurry. Now continuous formal and informal assessments play a crucial role in how most teachers create flexible groupings based on mastery of a given topic. Stealing chapters from enrichment models commonly used in educating gifted students, North Topsail's teachers rely on learning contracts, compacting and independent study plans. They also use a handful of off-the-shelf formative assessment and curriculum products, including Curriculum Associates Comprehensive Assessment of Reading Strategies, and Strategies to Achieve Reading Success, which handle both assessment and prescriptive curriculum to address gaps in performance.

These programs also include self-evaluations that help students move toward the metacognitive thinking that is crucial to differentiated instruction and research-based approaches to formative assessment, says Lauren Armour, national consultants manager at Curriculum Associates.


Wyoming is scrapping its Wyoming Comprehensive Assessment System this year and introducing a new system that offers formative and summative assessments. The new Proficiency Assessment of Wyoming Students model is being created by Harcourt Assessment Inc. It will be "instructionally supported in the classroom," says Cheryl Schroeder, coordinator of standards and assessment at the Wyoming Dept. of Education.

Wyoming, with just 48 school districts, is one of a handful of states that will make formative assessments available to all districts on an elective basis. Wyoming's formative assessments will be available online through Wedgate, the Wyoming portal sponsored by, which also offers the SAS in Schools curriculum.

"The formative tests are linked to our standards and will allow teachers and students alike to know where kids are, and practice what they have determined to be important," Schroeder says.

This practice began last summer when Total Reader became available online for student use in class and at home. In April, a formative assessment of writing skills that's powered by an artificial intelligence scoring tool became available.

"The benefits that I see is that they can be diagnostic and used to guide instruction in the classroom," Schoeder says. "That's huge. With that every student has their own plan to be able to reach proficiency."

Wyoming is also working with higher education institutions to improve pre-service and leadership education to place a greater emphasis on assessment proficiency.


The Assessment Training Institute

ThinkLink Learning

Center for Performance Assessment


Wyoming's formative assessments, sponsored by
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Author:Sausner, Rebecca
Publication:District Administration
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 1, 2005
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