We know formative assessment is one of our most powerful tools for improving student learning.
Keeping tabs on what students are getting—and what they’re struggling with—in real time is one of our most powerful ways to improve teaching and learning.
When we can adjust our teaching moment by moment, and day by day, we can stop flying blind, like an airline pilot who knows the destination but never bothers to check the instruments mid-flight.
Formative assessment allows us to make sure that what we’re teaching is what students need, and that they’re actually benefitting from our instruction.
The Problem with Formative Assessment
The only problem? We barely use it.
In most schools, formative assessment is more of an aspiration than a reality.
Why? It's hard.
It's hard to give good formative assessments, it's hard to use them quickly, and it's hard to monitor formative assessment in your school because—by its very nature nature—it's so fleeting.
To paraphrase G.K. Chesterton, it's not so much that formative assessment has been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.
As a science teacher, I gave “exit slips” at the end of class to learn what made sense to students, and what they didn't get from the day's lesson.
My goal was to review them and figure out what I needed to do the next day to close the gaps in students' understanding.
Too often, though, I'd take home five rubber-banded bricks of exit slips in my briefcase…and bring them back the next day, unexamined. I tried, but often I didn't succeed in looking at the 120+ slips of paper that I'd collected.
This was partially due to a lack of discipline on the part of my 21-year-old self, but also partially due to the inefficiency of the process.
Inefficiency matters for formative assessment, but it's something we don't like to talk about in education.
Our Allergy to Efficiency
Could I have worked harder and used formative assessment more effectively in my class? Could I have read every last one of those exit tickets at the end of the day?
Absolutely. And I should have.
But educators' lives are full of things we “should” do. I also should have called a dozen kids' parents with positive news, and collaborated with the SPED teacher, and aligned my lesson plans to the standards, and cleaned my desk, and fixed that broken chair at the back of the room.
No matter how true it is that we should do something, the reality is that we can't do everything we're supposed to do. Not well, at least.
And we especially don't have time to do things that are inefficient and cumbersome, though we hate to admit it.
We don't like talking about efficiency in education. It feels lazy to even bring it up. It feels like complaining. We act like we're allergic to it.
But efficiency is our single greatest opportunity for improvement, because by definition, inefficiency is waste.
If I have a hole in my pocket, and my money is falling out, I don't need to earn more money to have more—I just need to repair the hole.
But many of the inefficiencies in schools are structural. They can't be fixed by a single person acting alone, because they were created by leadership in the first place. The same systems that made sense years ago when they were implemented are now the source of inefficiencies that slow us down.
Is change possible? Yes, but it'll take leadership.
Formative assessment has huge potential for increased efficiency, but our practice can only change with leadership.
The Challenges of Formative Assessment Leadership
If formative assessment has so much potential, why aren't school leaders making it happen? To be sure, some are. But many more aren't.
To understand why, we need to think about how we can shape teachers' formative assessment practices. As an organizational manager, how do you exercise influence and make things happen?
For starters, communication matters. Leaders who communicate their priorities clearly and consistently tend to get more of those priorities actually accomplished.
Do we communicate about formative assessment? Perhaps a bit, but consider what else we have to communicate about—the competition for our limited bandwidth:
- Improvement initiatives
- Curriculum and professional development
- Summative assessments
- Data analysis
Formative assessment is closely related to these issues, but it may not make the cut when it comes time to write the newsletter, hold the faculty meeting, or set the agenda for improvement work.
As leaders, we like data. We like things we can see. And too often, formative assessment is invisible to us.
The Challenges of Using Ephemeral Data
Have you ever heard the saying “What gets measured is what gets done“?
It's true, and it explains part of our challenge in leading formative assessment.
To put it mildly, formative assessment is difficult to measure. It's difficult to monitor. It's difficult to collect data on.
Do you have any data about the math problems students solved on slates or scratch paper two weeks ago in Mrs. Smith's classroom?
Do you know what percentage of students were able to explain photosynthesis halfway through Mr. Johnson's science lesson last Tuesday?
Of course not, and you don't need to. By definition, formative assessment data is for adjusting instruction, not for reporting. You certainly don't want to hold teachers or students accountable for formative assessment scores, since the learning is still in progress.
If you do collect formative assessment data of some type, you're probably making the process less efficient…which, as we saw above, is a real problem.
And do you really want 120 exit slips, every day, from every science teacher? Of course not.
But if you collect no data at all, you won't be able to guarantee that formative assessment is being used effectively. You won't be able to help the teachers who need help.
And that's the norm in our profession.
It's totally normal for some teachers to do great formative assessment, others to take half-measures, and the majority to do almost nothing at all.
But do you want your school to be normal?
We Can Do Better Because…Technology
I don't believe that technology is a silver bullet. There are plenty of problems that tech can't fix for us.
But technology is great at fixing efficiency problems, and formative assessment leadership is largely an efficiency problem:
- It's more efficient to administer formative assessments with technology
- It's more efficient to examine the responses and analyze the data with technology
- It's more efficient to share information with colleagues and administrators via technology
- It's easier to monitor school-wide practices and trends with technology
- It's easier to focus supports on the right students—and teachers—with technology
So I was excited to learn that ExitTicket, which is already used by countless thousands of teachers, has a dashboard for administrators called Coachr.
I learned about Coachr last year, and over the past few months, I've been working with ExitTicket on a free professional development program to help schools make good use of it.
This program, the Formative Assessment Challenge, is now open for registration, and it's 100% free.
In schools using cutting-edge formative assessment practices:
- Students get feedback multiple times per class period
- Teachers know, in real time, if their instruction is achieving its aims, and can adjust accordingly
- Administrators know which students need additional help, and which teachers to consult for winning strategies
Formative assessment strategies like exit slips and conferring have been around for decades, but they're incredibly challenging to implement consistently, because they're laborious, time-consuming practices…unless we allow technology to do what it does best.
What is The Challenge?
The Formative Assessment Challenge is designed to help school administrators and teacher-leaders implement high-leverage formative assessment strategies using technology in a 1:1/BYOD setting.
Rally a group of your interested faculty to explore exiting new practices and tools in formative assessment by joining The Challenge.
Over the course of 4-6 weeks, you'll be guided through the process of:
- Implementing powerful formative assessment practices
- Using student or school devices in a 1:1 ratio for instant data collection
- Analyzing school-level trends and identifying best practices for helping students attain mastery
What are teachers expected to do?
In The Challenge, teachers will be asked to start giving two types of formative assessments:
- First, “Do Now” formative assessments at the beginning of class
- Second, we'll add “exit tickets” at the end of class
- To take these assessments, students will use their web-enabled devices as “clickers” to respond to teacher-generated questions
What are the benefits for students?
- Faster, standards-linked, mastery-based feedback on their learning
- More relevant instruction targeted to their specific learning needs
- Earlier intervention for struggling students
What are the benefits for teachers?
- Less time spent on grading
- Faster, more frequent formative assessment
- Easier adjustments to instruction, based on student understanding, in real time
- Free, high-quality professional development on formative assessment from The Principal Center
What are the benefits for school administrators?
- School-level view of formative assessment data in real time
- “Bright spots” analysis tools for identifying and sharing best practices
- Free access to the leading formative assessment tools during the Challenge
- Free, high-quality professional development on formative assessment leadership from The Principal Center
Requirements for Participation
- 1 or more participating administrator(s)—you can sign yourself up now
- Eventually, you'll need to form a team of 5 or more participating classroom teachers (ideally a department or team)
- 1 web-enabled device (iOS, Android, Windows, Mac, or Chrome OS) per student—”BYOD” (Bring Your Own Device) or 1:1 device program
- Wifi in participating classrooms
If you are in an elementary or non-1:1 school, we'll have additional options in the future, but if you're in a secondary school that meets the tech requirements, join the Formative Assessment Challenge today and we'll get you started! We'll contact you during the challenge about forming your “vanguard” teacher team.