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Voices from the Middle--Moving from Print to Practice, December 2013 (21.2) - Previous Revision

This Issue’s Focus: Feed Forward: Linking Instruction with Assessment

This issue of Voices from the Middle focuses on formative assessment as a process, a way of thinking, rather than a product. The articles in this professional development guide are arranged to guide the conversation from theory to practice.

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Laying the Foundation for Our Thinking

“Tough Teacher Evaluation and Formative Assessment: Oil and Water?” by W. James Popham

“Assessment: The Bridge between Teaching and Learning” by Dylan Wiliam

General Discussion Topic

These two articles combine to ground our thinking about formative assessment in this issue. Popham and Wiliam represent foundational thinkers, writers, and researchers in the field of assessment, guiding teachers and administrators in the notion of formative assessment as an essential process for student learning. In an era of increasingly high-stakes measures for teachers and students, can teachers afford not to embrace the principles of formative assessment?

Key Points

  • Teachers who employ formative assessment are more likely to be instructionally effective.
  • Formative assessment is a process rather than a particular type of assessment. It is a planned process rather than simply a series of spur-of-the-moment actions.
  • Students’ achievement will play a prominent role in almost all states’ teacher-evaluation procedures, and teachers who employ formative assessment procedures will almost always engender improved achievement in their students.
  • This is precisely the moment when sensible teachers should learn to employ the formative assessment process. 
  • No matter how carefully we design and implement instruction, what our students learn cannot be predicted with any certainty.
  • It is only thorough assessment that we can discover whether the instructional activities in which we engage our students resulted in intended learning.
  • Feedback is considered by many to be the heart of formative assessment.
  • The quality of feedback that can be provided depends on the quality of evidence that is elicited in the first place.
  • Effective feedback requires a plan of action about what to do with the evidence before it is collected.
Using These Articles with Your Team

Just as the Common Core State Standards emphasize literacy in every content area, formative assessment must be a component of every classroom and every discipline in order to be successful. When you and your colleagues are in team meetings, are you planning for formative assessment experiences throughout your interdisciplinary units? Are you using formative assessment results and artifacts in team meetings when discussing individual student progress? Are you using formative assessment results when conferencing with parents?

Why Not Try This?
If the idea of formative assessment is new to you, start by looking at an upcoming unit of study. You have already determined what you want them to know and be able to do by the end of that unit, and you have some experience with the final assessment. Whether you have data and student work samples or not, try to identify where students in the past have struggled to meet your expectations or attain the learning goals you set for them.

Next, look back through the structure of the unit. Identify places where you may be able to intervene to provide more scaffolding, structure, or assistance. These may be the perfect points for that planned process of formative assessment. Have they struggled with vocabulary development? How can you assess their word knowledge before the summative assessment? At what points would checking on their progress toward your learning goals be helpful for you and your students?

Another important concept related to formative assessment is feedback. We have to plan to give feedback, and we have to allow time for students to do something with it. We need to give feedback in a timely fashion so that students can use it, and middle school students may need significant support for how we expect them to use our feedback. This could mean asking students to respond to our feedback using an exit slip after we return an assignment, or leading a discussion of general trends after an activity or project. We may need to add an extra peer conferencing session to a writer’s workshop. Feedback that is only filed in a notebook or folder does not make our students more effective learners.


“Formative Assessment and the Common Core: Blending the Best in Assessment” by Laura Greenstein

“Living and Learning: Formative Assessment in a Middle Level Classroom” by Amanda M. Sass-Henke

General Discussion Topic

These two articles offer readers a bridge from theory to practice. These teachers articulate how the use of formative assessment has transformed their practice and enhanced student learning and engagement. In order for that transformation to take place, teachers and students need to learn how to use formative assessment results to inform decisions about teaching and learning. This makes students collaborators in the learning process in ways that we may never have thought of before. Think about the transformational nature of that thought—formative assessment makes students collaborators in their own learning. How powerful this concept can be to help students meet the Common Core State Standards!

Key Points

  • As with instruction, the type of assessment and the choice of response must be aligned with Common Core State Standards and each learner’s abilities.
  • Specific strategies, such as feedback, inform students of progress.
  • Other strategies, such as sticky notes and word walls, display individual student’s understanding.
  • Formative strategies give students a preview of learning and give teachers insights that can guide instruction: proceed as planned, adjust content, or use a different learning strategy. 
  • The decision to implement formative assessment led to a metamorphosis as a teacher. Instead of making all units end with assessment, assessment was part of the design each day.
  • As students participate in the unit of study, the topics and activities are based on their understanding of objectives.
  • The teacher utilizes formative assessment, such as exit tickets, self-assessments, and observations, to make decisions regarding the unit’s agenda.
Using These Articles with Your Team

Many content area teachers struggle with implementation of the Common Core State Standards for Literacy. In many states where there is not an assessment in science, social studies, or related arts connected to value-added data, reading and writing scores may be used to calculate value-added in other content areas. As the literacy professional in your building or on your team, share ideas with your content area colleagues to help them use formative assessments for literacy standards as well as their content.

For example, citing textual evidence is part of the CCSS in every discipline. How can you and your colleagues in different content areas use formative assessment to help students understand what textual evidence is and how to cite it?

Sass-Henke stresses the importance of a support group when initiating the use of formative assessment. Interdisciplinary or subject area teams in middle schools are designed to be just that. If everyone on your team is working to employ formative assessment across the curriculum, then team meetings can become sharing and support sessions for teachers and, in the end, will benefit students as their teachers grow more and more adept at measuring and supporting effective learning.

Common Core Connection: Citing Textual Evidence

Reading Literature Grade 8
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.8.1: Cite the textual evidence that most strongly supports an analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
Informational Text Grade 7
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.7.1: Cite several pieces of textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
History/Social Studies Grades 6–8
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.1: Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources.
Science and Technical Subjects Grades 6–8
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RST.6-8.1: Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of science and technical texts.

Why Not Try This?
Greenstein references the two nationwide assessments being developed for the Common Core State Standards. Want to know more?
  • PARCC—Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers

  • Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium
  • NCTE Policy Brief on the Common Core State Standards (login required)
  • “Two Paths toward Common Core Standards Assessments”—includes a map of tests by state

Greenstein provides samples of two formative assessment tools in her article. Try using the templates below to implement her ideas.

Abbreviated Student Learning Tracker

I know where we are headed and what I will need to know and do.Preassessment
What do I know about . . . ?
How did I learn it?
Is it like or different from my culture?

I can use vocabulary accurately to describe the main idea of what I read.Developing Understanding
These are words I didn’t understand when I started, and here’s what I learned they mean (example detailed).
_Terrifying: To make deeply afraid____________

I can select words and phrases that help me make sense of what I am reading.(Student) says: “We glued our faces to the window, it was so interesting.”
What idiom means:
that they couldn’t take their faces away from the window.

I will draw inferences from the text to help me read deeply.Create a 3-Column Chart
1) Problem
2) What They Did
3) Evidence: Words and Actions

Strategies for Responding to Formative Assessment

1. Determine response triggers: How many have to show mastery and at what level?
2. Identify and respond holistically to prevalent misconceptions.
3. Decide who (individuals, various groups, whole class) needs more or less or different instruction and/or interventions.
4. Reteach using a different strategy or modality: aural instead of written, visual presentation rather than reading.
5. Select different instructional resources and technologies.
6. Adjust content: more or less, deeper or shallower.
7. Change pacing of teaching and learning in response to students’ emerging grasp of material.
8. Add scaffolds and supports such as graphic organizers, paired groups, extra time.
9. Split/chunk dense material and information into smaller subsets and frequently summarize them.
10. Provide exemplars.
11. Regroup responsively: Use flexible grouping for specific purposes.
12. Offer enrichment for skilled learners.
13. Work one-on-one or with small groups of students.
14. Set up lunch buddies, after school enrichment, and online extensions of learning.


“A Tale of Two Authentic Assessment Tools” by Katie Stover, Karen D. Wood, Erin Donovan, Jeanne R. Paratore, and Rachel McCormack

“Assessments That Inform and Shape Instruction within a Reading Workshop” by Denise N. Morgan, Gayle Marek Hauptman, Barbara Clark, Jeff L. Williams, and Scott Hatteberg

“Sketching as Response and Assessment: From Misunderstanding to Better Instruction” by Renita Schmidt

General Discussion Topic

These three articles combine to give readers models of practice using formative assessment. Not only do these teachers use formative assessment to advance student learning and bring students into the role of collaborators, they expand our concept of formative assessment beyond exit slips and benchmark quizzes. SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) analysis is a model from the business world now being applied to the classroom. Reading workshop has been a core of many middle school classrooms that is further enhanced with a focus on formative assessment. Formative assessment of responses to literature can take many forms, including artistic representations. How do the practices of this group of authors help you to expand your conception of formative assessment?

Key Points

  • SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) applied as a means of formative assessment provides a broader understanding of an individual student’s background and current circumstances and helps to develop strengths and set goals.
  • The open-ended structure of SWOT allowed students to define strengths as they saw them rather than checking a box or trying to fit themselves into a rigid reading survey.
  • Using a variety of reading materials and assessment tools allowed students to share their voices and express understanding in a way that made sense to them, as opposed to trying to guess the correct answer on a multiple-choice test. 
  • Free associational assessment is a broader way of assessing cognitive change and growth that allows students to show what they have learned.
  • SWOT and free associational assessment foster self-evaluation, provide student feedback, and link assessment with instruction.
  • Having assessments that provide teachers with targeted information to inform thoughtful instruction is critical within the reading workshop model. 
  • When students are assessed in a format similar to that of the state test, it makes it possible for teachers to see how they apply the concepts in that setting. 
  • Using a variety of forms, including drawings, shows not only what young adolescents understand, but also what is misunderstood, thereby providing implications for teachers who wonder how they might assess artistic responses. 
  • When students respond through a variety of communication systems, their created products become signs or stand-ins for ideas they have about how the world works. 
  • Analysis of students’ illustrations evolved into lessons that helped them extend meaning making and think about real life issues.
Using These Articles with Your Team

These articles represent unique approaches to formative assessment in language arts classrooms, but colleagues in all disciplines could adapt these ideas. SWOT analysis in particular could be a tool used by your entire team. Such individual conferencing is time consuming. Consider approaching it as a team. What would happen if you broke your students into groups and each teacher on your team modeled conferences like the ones in this issue, focusing your analysis on literacy concepts that cross disciplines and are aligned to the CCSS, then shared those results as a team?

Common Core Connections

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.7.5: With some guidance and support from peers and adults, develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach, focusing on how well purpose and audience have been addressed.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.6.10: Write routinely over extended time frames (time for research, reflection, and revision) and shorter time frames (a single sitting or a day or two) for a range of discipline-specific tasks, purposes, and audiences.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.6.3: Describe how a particular story’s or drama’s plot unfolds in a series of episodes as well as how the characters respond or change as the plot moves toward a resolution.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.7.3: Analyze how particular elements of a story or drama interact (e.g., how setting shapes the characters or plot).

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.8.3: Analyze how particular lines of dialogue or incidents in a story or drama propel the action, reveal aspects of a character, or provoke a decision.

Why Not Try This?
Conferring with Students: Conferencing is an important type of formative assessment, especially in workshop settings. Use of feedback for students and teachers is a critical part of making conferences successful. Record keeping is important, too; try having students help in that process. As a means of recording and acting upon feedback, give students the task of summarizing the conference, recording action items and needed follow-up.

SWOT analysis as described by Stover, could be the framework for these conferences and for student-collected feedback. Have the students record their own Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats (perhaps repackaging these as Challenges or Roadblocks for students) and track the use of feedback.

 My Strengths
What will I do to continue my strengths? My Weaknesses What have I done to address a weakness? My Opportunities How have I used new opportunities? My Challenges What have I done to overcome challenges? 
Week 1
Week 2
Week 3
Week 4

Practical Applications: The authors describe using excerpts from YA literature in mini-lessons on literary elements such as setting, plot, or point of view. Children’s literature and picturebooks work well for these kinds of examples, too. For example, give students a single picturebook or a related set and have them identify the elements of the setting. Use a page of guided notes or another graphic organizer to collect information. This can serve as a means of formative assessment before launching into a short story or novel where the setting plays a major role in the story.

Sketching as Response: Analysis scoring tool

Use the template to assess your students’ sketches:

Focus Questions
Evidence Examples
 How does the student identify plot? 
 What design choices does the student make? 
 How does the student display understanding of the reading? 
 Does anything in the response identify a misunderstanding? 
 What do I like about this response as an assessor? 

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