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What Teachers Should Know About Integrating Formative Tests With Instruction

Teachers need more support to move testing from a “necessary evil” to a classroom tool, experts say.

While summative tests—like unit quizzes or annual state assessments—are used for evaluation and accountability, research shows formative assessments—like puzzles, projects, and class error analyses—can help teachers and students identify misunderstandings and reflect on students’ progress as they’re learning.

While most teachers use at least some formative testing in daily classroom practice, experts at the American Educational Research Association conference here last week argued they need more support to integrate daily assessments with overall classroom instruction.

“We need to think about assessment more holistically,” said E. Caroline Wylie, a senior associate at the National Center for the Improvement of Educational Assessment and co-author of the National Academy of Education’s new report on assessment released last week. “Certainly we’ve got to be sharing learning goals for students, assessment, and learning in ways that are recognizable.”

For example, in one study, Dustin Van Orman, a STEM education research associate at Western Washington University, asked a national sample of more than 100 elementary student-teachers who participated in simulations of English, science, and math classes. The teachers were asked how much experience they had in using formative assessment, and then were asked to use information about students in the simulated classes to plan tasks and other formative assessments over three class periods.

About 1 in 5 of the preservice teachers had little to no prior training in formative assessment, and a third had experience only with formal testing, rather than informal assessment through tasks and activities. One preservice teacher reported that her mentor-teacher downplayed the usefulness of classroom assessment and “only likes to do assessment if it’s like something she kind of has to do.”

While a majority of preservice teachers in the study could identify tasks students should be able to do as they learn particular academic content, Van Orman and his colleagues found many student-teachers did not set learning goals with their students or set criteria for tests and tasks based on learning goals. Rather, tests and tasks often could be disconnected from overarching instructional goals. Teachers less experienced in assessment also tended to give more static feedback—praising or correcting students—but not providing information on which students were expected to act.

How to use formative tests effectively

“Assessment shouldn’t be dropped in from the sky, disconnected from student experience,” said Wylie, who was not part of the preservice teacher study. It’s also important for teachers to understand their own and students’ cultural backgrounds when designing assessments, she noted.

Van Orman and Erin Riley-Lepo, a visiting assistant professor at the College of New Jersey, have been working with researchers, teachers, and principals to develop a framework for teachers’ own assessment literacy.

To effectively use formative testing in class, they recommended:

  • Teachers and students develop a shared understanding of the goal of tests.
  • Assessments focus on what students are learning in ways that the students can recognize, so that they can understand their own progress.
  • Students should engage in self- and peer-assessments, to help take ownership of their learning.
  • Assessments should make students’ thinking visible to both the teacher and students, to correct misconceptions and build on students’ strengths.
  • Assessments should directly inform teachers’ instruction.

Building better classroom assessment practice also requires support from principals and district leaders.

“We talk about teachers, but the reality is, teachers are embedded in schools and districts with particular approaches and constraints on their assessment that may or may not be—and often is not—supportive of active and focused assessments,” Wylie said.

For example, Wylie noted that in the last four months, she and her research team repeatedly had to cancel professional development for teachers because the principals could not secure enough substitute teachers to cover their classes.

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