Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Drilling Down to a Balanced Assessment System

Can differentiating between formative and summative assessment be as simple as making soup? As Paul Black describes assessment practices, “When the cook tastes the soup, that’s formative assessment; when the customer tastes the soup, that’s summative assessment.” Even though there are multiple definitions and analogies to clear up the differences, there isn’t a more powerful way of increasing one’s understanding than experiencing formative and summative assessment as a learner in a real-life situation.

The difference for me was clearly articulated when I, the “student,” picked up a drill for the very first time while my dad, “the teacher,” provided me with a balanced assessment system. Smarter Balanced, our state’s assessment consortium, is an advocate for the importance of this system, which is defined below:

A balanced assessment system — which includes the formative assessment process as well as interim and summative assessments — provides tools to improve teaching and learning. The formative assessment process is an essential component of a balanced assessment system.

Connecting the four attributes of formative assessment defined by SBAC to everyday practices can increase our understanding of this ambiguous process.

Refer to this Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium document for more information:  Four Attributes of Formative Assessment

So, how do these four attributes connect to real-life experiences?

As was mentioned in the second paragraph, the importance and intent of this seemingly ambiguous process was clarified when I became a “student.” A drill is something I never needed until I moved into a new home where blinds needed to be mounted, beds and dining room chairs needed to be put together, shelves hung, etc.  After attempting to begin a few of these projects with a Phillips screw driver, I knew there had to be another alternative. On a cold day in January, I made a trip to Ace Hardware and bought a Dewalt drill, which was on sale. I looked at that foreign object just like a first-time mom with no babysitting experience looks at her brand-new baby . . . not sure how to hold it or simply what to do with it.

If my dad and I were in an educational setting, he would have given me the following learning targets to clarify intended learning.
  • I can adjust the settings to make the bit turn to the left or to the right.

  • I can drill different sized holes with a drill bit.
  • I can develop a sense of flexibility in the bits I use as I am working with different projects.

  • I can explain what the numbers mean on the handle and am able to use them effectively and appropriately in a variety of settings.
  • I can explain what the numbers (1 and 2) mean on the switch and am able to adjust the settings appropriately in a variety of situations.

  • I can create a project by using a variety of bits and screws.

Not only did my “teacher” understand the outcomes, but I did as well.  It would have been extremely helpful to have a self-monitoring tool, similar to the one we used at the middle school level while teachers were becoming familiar with standards-based grading.  Click here to view this tool - one that would have given my dad and me specific steps in what the “student” needed to do in order to be proficient in each learning target.
As an effective “teacher,” my dad gave me multiple opportunities in different settings (mounting blinds and TVs, hanging towel racks, assembling dining room chairs, etc.) to elicit evidence. Collecting evidence of learning was either spontaneous (click here for a list of formative assessment ideas) or a planned event (completing the final product) .

Interpreting evidence Through observations, conversations, and the quality of the products, my “teacher” and I were able to determine my strengths and possible gaps in my understanding.

Acting on evidence As I was practicing the learning targets, my “teacher” provided “timely, descriptive, and actionable feedback” during the learning process.  While hanging the blinds, the drill bit wasn’t catching onto the screw. My dad said, “If you don’t put enough pressure on the screw, it will continue to give you problems.  Once the bit is lined up properly, focus on applying pressure to keep the bit from leaving the screw.  You may also want to decrease the speed to see if that helps.”

As a learner, I was extremely grateful that my “teacher” didn’t assign practice tasks that were not meaningful.  Practicing the task of making the bit turn right or left when I had already reached proficiency would have been frustrating and there would have been a delay in the opportunity to obtain proficiency in other areas.  In order for the learning to keep moving forward, it is critical for teachers to know where each individual student is in regards to reaching proficiency.  As a teacher, this can be somewhat overwhelming, but when students are also documenting their progress, it becomes a team effort.  Refer to the self-monitoring sheet below that these Algebra II students are using in Mr. Nate Welstad’s class.

Students complete the sheet as they move closer and closer to proficiency.  Under each learning target, there are suggested “practice” problems for those students who haven’t reached proficiency yet in that area. Like me, I am sure his students appreciate the opportunity to take control of their learning by practicing the skills that they have identified as partially proficient.

Whether it be the soup you are making, a product you are assembling, or skills you are learning in Algebra II, providing or obtaining effective feedback during the formative assessment process is critical in the learner’s success in reaching the end goal.

What steps are you taking as a teacher, parent, administrator, staff developer, etc. to assist your “learners” in moving towards proficiency? Are you engaging them in a balanced assessment plan?

Up next:

“O.K., great - I’ve got a balanced assessment plan...now what?”  How do I implement good feedback practices?  What does it look like in powerschool? How will I know if my plan is helping my students move past proficiency?  How do I manage all of this?  Stay tuned for some thoughts on these issues...until then, feel free to post your questions or ideas in the comments section below."

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