Data. As teachers we seem to be eating, breathing, and sleeping data. There is certainly more data in my file folders, filing cabinets, and online collection system than I know what to do with. Pre-tests, post-tests, performance tasks, and mock state testing data. I’m breaking out in a cold sweat just thinking about all of the numbers I should be crunching right now. My professional reading tells me that data is good. Data is needed. Yet, there is always something in me that cheers whenever another teacher shakes her head and says, ” I don’t need data to tell me that this student gets it, and this one doesn’t.” That feels so true, doesn’t it?
And there it is. The single biggest mistake that I have made over and over again.
There are a couple of reasons why that statement isn’t ringing true with me anymore, but before we delve into the many errors that I have made over the years, I want to distinguish between good data and useless data.
Teachers can spot useless data collection a mile away. It’s the premade test that you as the teacher had no hand in. It’s something that started in an office somewhere by people who have never seen the inside of the classroom. It’s the latest and greatest “assessment kit” that will rock your world for the bargain price of $69.99. Never personal. Never useful. Never. Never. Never.
Also, let’s distinguish between summative and formative. This post will focus on the latter. Summative assessment at the end of a unit or a project is incredibly useful and necessary. The problem comes when we as teachers use that as our primary source of data. The end result can give us important information, but there is a lot that it can’t tell us.
Maybe you’ve seen that post going around Pinterest that has about a dozen chocolate chip cookies all lined up. They are all different consistencies, shapes, even colors. Each is labeled with a reason why they look different. A what went wrong list, if you will. Too much flour. Baking soda instead of baking powder. Oil, not butter. Just looking at each cookie I could tell that something was wrong. But, it is very unlikely that without those labels, I would have been able to diagnose how they got that way.
And that’s where formative assessment comes in. Yes, the end product can tell us that the student did or didn’t “get it.” But, what’s really important is the why, the how, and the mistakes and successes along the way.
So, back to the mistake I keep making. I assume. I assume that I know when my class is with me and when they’re not. I assume that because I hear good talk about reading happening on the carpet, that will translate to good writing about reading later on. I admit that sometimes I pat myself on the back when the loudest voices in the conversation are saying all the right things. I tell myself that the student who is off-task is a behavior issue. The kid at table three who hasn’t picked up his pencil lacks motivation. These are the false assumptions that have me scratching my head in surprise and disappointment when students don’t do as well as I’d hope on an end of unit task. These are the false assumptions that could use a little formative assessment to set them straight.
Exit tickets, checklists, post its…any quick way to see who “has it” at the end of the lesson and who doesn’t. This is typically what we think of when we hear formative assessment. But, just like the mounds of data sitting in my file folders right now, some of it turns out to be pretty useless. One of the reasons for this may be that we do nothing with it. Good data can help us quickly form strategy groups for the next day, set the agenda for a conference, and plan next steps in instruction. Exit tickets that sit on my desk for a week, well…not so much. Another way that I don’t realize data’s full potential is by leaving my students out of the process. Many times, I am the only one involved in the collection and interpretation. True formative assessment demands to be student centered and driven. The National Council of Teachers of English have released a position statement on formative assessment. You can read the full document here, but let’s take a look at a section of page three that lists ten essential elements.
1. Requires students to take responsibility for their own learning.
2. Communicates clear, specific learning goals.
3. Focuses on goals that represent valuable educational outcomes with applicability beyond the learning context.
4. Identifies the student’s current knowledge/skills and the necessary steps for reaching the desired goals.
5. Requires development of plans for attaining the desired goals.
6. Encourages students to self-monitor progress toward the learning goals.
7. Provides examples of learning goals including, when relevant, the specific grading criteria or rubrics that will be used to
evaluate the student’s work.
8. Provides frequent assessment, including peer and student self-assessment and assessment embedded within learning
9. Includes feedback that is non-evaluative, specific, timely, and related to the learning goals, and that provides
opportunities for the student to revise and improve work products and deepen understandings.
10. Promotes metacognition and reflection by students on their work.”
So much of formative assessment needs to come back into the hands of the student. It isn’t just about my next steps as the teacher; it’s about my student understanding his next steps as the learner. It’s about the process, the journey, and all of the starts and stops along the way.
It would be possible to look at each of these ten elements and tell you how I’ve done it wrong in the past and what I plan to do from now on. I’m pretty sure I can summarize everything pretty simply, though. I haven’t been collecting nearly enough of the right type of data, and I haven’t been doing the right things with it. I’m planning on changing that, and I know that I have a lot of patient mentors and thoughtful colleagues who will hash all of this out with me.
The proof is in the pudding is a pretty common adage. And it’s partly true. Looking at the end result will definitely signal success or failure. But, if we want that pudding to ever turn out differently, we’re going to need to be there from start to finish. Assuming nothing. Taking notes. Giving feedback. Demonstrating. And, eventually, putting it in the hands of the one who’s making it in the first place.
~ J Brittin