The power of formative assessment when the only constant is change

Before schools closed in March, I sat in on a lesson planning meeting with an Algebra II teaching team working on how to bring context to a lesson on linear and exponential change. In the air was one obvious, real-world example: cases of COVID-19 had begun to exponentially grow in the United States, and it was clear the virus was about to impact the lives of students and families across the country.

I’ve reflected a lot on that almost surreal moment since, a powerful reminder of the concrete relevance of learning to students’ lives.

Viral counts were not the only form of exponential change this spring; one of the many changes in our culture was a historic and unprecedented interruption to the pattern of schooling. Very suddenly, school took place at home, and educators were faced with the daunting challenge of reaching students affected by individual stress and trauma, different abilities to engage with education, and unknown gaps in learning.

Most observers now believe school is unlikely to stop changing anytime soon. Starting in fall 2020, school for most students could mean half-day or partial week in-person instruction, the regular threat of additional school closures due to new outbreaks, and socially distanced routines that take away many of their favorite aspects of the school day.

The interrupted learning facing us in the 2020–21 school year will likely be frequent, unpredictable, and different from state to state and school to school.”

What doesn’t change during this period is the central importance of student learning: building growth and mastery to ensure all students have the knowledge they need to understand a chaotic and unpredictable world.

Formative assessment is a critical tool for educators looking to unlock in-depth information on student learning in a world of change. Rather than focusing on a specific test, formative assessment focuses on practices teachers undertake during learning that provide information on student progress toward learning outcomes. Using strategies that expose misconceptions, support higher-level thinking within a subject, and engage students in academic discourse, formative assessment provides the real-time feedback necessary to dynamically adjust instruction to meet learner needs as they emerge and change.

Understanding interrupted learning

At NWEA, we’ve termed this a period of interrupted learning: learning that occurs irregularly, with breaks in established routines and inconsistencies in meeting the academic, social, emotional, technological, and/or physical needs of learners. While this situation is similar to other learning interruptions caused by natural disasters, human migration, or other large-scale events, this event is different. The interrupted learning facing us in the 2020–21 school year will likely be frequent, unpredictable, and different from state to state and school to school.

Although the magnitude of learning loss during this period will likely be substantial, no two students will experience interrupted learning in quite the same way. For some students, personal or familial hardship will limit their opportunity to remain on an upward learning track during the spring and summer. For other students, moving between schools or districts may change their scope and sequence, causing them to repeat content they have already mastered or miss critical skills for future content. Even under normal circumstances, students move through content at different speeds and in different ways, meaning two students starting from the same origin may take different paths to the destination.

Formative assessment is a critical tool for educators looking to unlock in-depth information on student learning in a world of change.”

What formative assessment offers is an individualized and specific understanding of where students are in a content area and what they need to learn next. When first learning plotting coordinate points, for example, students may make similar errors for distinct reasons: they may misunderstand the meaning of words like “vertical” and “horizontal,” they may reverse the order of an ordered pair of coordinates, or they may incorrectly order the quadrants of the plane. To understand these misconceptions, a teacher may ask students to explain plotting points to a partner, ask students to generate their own ordered pairs to chart, or give other examples of vertical and horizontal surfaces. Techniques like these are very adaptable to remote instruction, making them a key tool in the blended learning toolbox.

To ensure each day’s instruction is focused on the most important content students need to reach their goals, teachers need to make careful and deliberate choices about the most essential scaffolds to support that learning. Formative assessment provides the tools to quickly identify the misconceptions at play, support with appropriate instruction, and ensure that rigorous and timely instruction sticks. As educators work to make up for unfinished teaching, and quickly adapt their curricular scope and sequence to match new opportunities to learn, these techniques support making evidence-based decisions to support what students learn next.

Building independent learners

Learning from home is a new experience. Teachers and families are collaborating on how students learn, blending video conference class meetings with online supplemental practice, worksheets, and learning created and driven by parents. In this process, the only person who witnesses a student’s learning from beginning to end is the student themselves. While some students may take on the level of independence and ownership of learning necessary to succeed outside a classroom, other students may not be ready to learn in a self-directed way.

Well-executed formative assessment practices provide teachers critical opportunities to re-engage students in the work of learning. Sometimes called “assessment for learning,” formative assessment asks students to proactively reflect on what they have learned, understand their learning in relation to their peers, and proactively raise lingering questions or ongoing learning needs. In a highly formative classroom, students may self-assess their knowledge on a new topic, get feedback on a project from peers, and journal or discuss what they hope to learn next.

Rather than focusing on a specific test, formative assessment focuses on practices teachers undertake during learning that provide information on student progress toward learning outcomes.”

The return of students to school is a key opportunity to build independence for students who have begun that process and use formative assessment to better understand the barriers to independence for others. Using formative assessment, teachers can create multiple, clear opportunities for students to understand what they should be ready to learn and the steps they will take to get there. While these values are critical in classrooms under any circumstances, they are particularly important when students may spend less of their learning time in schools with their teachers than ever before. Given the unpredictable nature of the school year to come, it is more important than ever to take early and frequent opportunities to build students’ skills.

Keeping learning central

With the magnitude of trauma experienced by our students during these times, there is an understandable desire to sideline academic content in favor of making the connections that will sustain students as people. Undoubtedly, taking care of social-emotional needs is the first priority of all schools moving forward next year. Still, losing attention on learning runs the risk of leaving some students behind when they most need opportunities to fill gaps in understanding and complete learning. Effective formative assessment shows these two aims need not conflict with one another. Using formative assessment allows educators to integrate attention to students as people with up-to-the-minute understandings of what students are ready to know next. The flexibility of those strategies is critical as short- and long-term periods of interrupted learning continue for the foreseeable future.

No one hopes for or expects this kind of exponential change. In these moments, what stands out is the extraordinary ability of people in all walks of life to adapt, make quick decisions, and ultimately flourish despite their insecurity. There are few values better to model for students as they look to school as a source of stability and continuity in their lives.

As you think about this topic more, I encourage you to consider the following discussion questions:

Questions for teachers

  • What effects of interrupted learning have you seen in your classroom
  • What are some ways to help students get back on track?
  • How can you build independent learners in your classroom?
  • What are some ways you can address social-emotional needs in your classroom?

Questions for leaders

  • What effects of interrupted learning have you seen school or district wide?
  • What are some steps you can take to help with interrupted learning?
  • How can you create a culture of independent learners?
  • What are some ways to address social-emotional needs system-wide?

This is the first in a series on formative assessment. Read the entire series in our e-book.

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