Are students learning? How can parents know?

Much attention has been given to formative assessment in the classroom over the past 20 years. Current research around a form of instruction referred to as “formative assessment” has greatly expanded its use in the classroom, where savvy teachers and students are using it to help improve student achievement. What is formative assessment? Several key elements are part of the definition. The first key element is that both teachers and students are involved in this process. A second key element is that formative assessment is a planned process. While other key elements exist, parents play a critical role in their children’s education. Whether it is helping them with reading, writing or math, it would be helpful for parents to be informed about the key characteristics of formative assessment and its usefulness.

Formative assessment has five key characteristics that savvy teachers, students and parents use to increase student learning. These are: learning progressions, clear achievement targets (or criteria for success), descriptive feedback, self/peer assessment and collaboration. Learning progressions require that teachers have a deep understanding of the sequence of what students need to learn and they keep this idea in focus as they instruct students giving them small, manageable bits of information in successive steps. Each step builds on the previous step. Many steps build into more complex concepts. Imagine building a log house with Lincoln logs. Each log has to be set in just the right place and order. One log out of place and house’s structure begins to erode. Teachers give formative assessments at just the right places during these learning progressions. The results are then used by both teachers and students to make adjustments. Parents can use this information as well.

Clear achievement targets or criteria for success are provided to students and parents in student friendly language before instruction begins. Doing so informs students what is expected of them upfront. Imagine how difficult it would be for a young person to build a log cabin for the first time without a picture, and then get graded on how similar their log home is to the picture they did not get to see. That would not be fair. However, providing clear achievement targets to students and parents before instruction begins can be a very efficient, effective, equitable formative assessment strategy.

Descriptive feedback needs to be provided in student-friendly terms. It also needs to be given to all students. It needs to clearly address specific qualities of their achieved high quality work. It gives advice on how to improve their work. It is timely. It does not compare their work to another student’s work and should be viewed as a motivator by students. Parents who know what the end product is supposed to look like can give quality descriptive feedback to their children when they know what the criteria for success are. Ask teachers what this criterion is, they will gladly tell you. Students are taught how to judge their own work and that of their classmates. This process should encourage students to take responsibility for their own learning.

Finally, collaboration simply means that the teacher plans, structures and implements adequate supports for a collaborative classroom atmosphere. As you might have already gathered teachers that provide students with good examples of learning progressions, give students clear achievement targets, model good descriptive feedback and self and peer assessment are laying a strong foundation for student achievement to increase, thanks in part to formative assessment.

Savvy educators who consistently utilize formative assessment effectively have seen gains in student outcomes. Savvy parents doing the same can further increase their children’s achievement and have fun building that log house with their children too.

Dr. Jon McKenzie is Director of Assessment and Comprehensive Improvement with Area Education Agency 267, based out of Cedar Falls. Dr. McKenzie can be reached with questions at 319-273-8287. Area Education Agency 267 serves over 66,000 students. In addition, over 5,000 educators rely on AEA 267 for services in special education, school technology, media, and instructional/curriculum support. The agency’s service area reaches 18 counties and nearly 9,000 square miles.

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