It’s a Process, Not a Technique

By Sarah P. Hylton, M.Ed., SURN

Imagine that you’re observing a class in which the students are working to find text evidence to support opinions they have. After each student locates a piece of evidence, the teacher, Ms. Smith, asks the students to show thumbs up, sideways, or down to indicate how confident they feel that their chosen piece of text evidence effectively proves their opinion. One of the items on your observation checklist is that the teacher effectively uses formative assessment. Would you check that box? Has Ms. Smith used formative assessment? What tells you that she has or hasn’t?

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Formative assessment is a process that involves multiple steps (see the image above). The first step in the process involves eliciting and capturing information about what the students know, believe, or can do and how well. The second step in the process requires the teacher (or student) to analyze the information that has been collected and to make appropriate inferences about the nature and degree of student learning. Finally, the teacher must communicate and use the information that was collected. In other words, the teacher should use the results of the analysis to inform instructional decision making and should share the results by providing feedback to students.

Often, our understanding of formative assessment is limited to the first stage of this process. There are seemingly endless lists of techniques that teachers can use to elicit information from students. You’re probably familiar with a litany of these types of techniques: thumbs up/thumbs down, exit slips, individual dry erase boards, think-pair-share, popsicle sticks, four corners. Often these formative assessment techniques are referred to as formative assessment, but this “name game” results in misconceptions about formative assessment. Using a technique is not formative assessment. In order to truly undertake formative assessment, teachers must engage in the subsequent stages of the process.

Teachers at SURN’s Designing Formative Assessment Workshop engage in conversation about the formative assessment process.

Teachers at SURN’s Designing Formative Assessment Workshop engage in conversation about the formative assessment process.

Returning to our original scenario, Ms. Smith does indeed create an opportunity to elicit and capture information from her students about their thinking, in this case, their degree of confidence in their chosen piece of text evidence. What we aren’t told is what happens next. Imagine that Ms. Smith follows the thumbs up/thumbs down responses with a comment such as “It seems like only two people are feeling really confident that they have found a solid piece of evidence. Let’s all look for another piece of evidence that supports our opinion even better.” Such a comment should reasonably convince us that Ms. Smith is actually engaging in formative assessment. Not only did she take time to elicit and capture information about student thinking, she also took time to analyze that information. We only know this because she then communicates that information with the students and uses it to make an instructional decision.

On the other hand, if Ms. Smith had simply said “Okay, great! Let’s move on to the next chapter,” we could be confident that she has not engaged in formative assessment. Yes, she used a formative assessment technique, but her decision to move forward despite only two students feeling that they had found a good piece of text evidence would indicate that she hasn’t engaged in the process.

Remember: formative assessment is not a technique; it’s a process. To truly engage in formative assessment, teachers must not only elicit and capture information; they must also analyze that information and then communicate and use that information.

Healthy Relations Create Equity

By Jamon H. Flowers, M.Ed., SURN

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As a principal, highlights in my day were visiting classrooms, interacting with students, and witnessing learning and teaching. By far, my students across grade levels were fortunate to have some great teachers and if I ever had to select the most effective teacher I worked with, indisputably, I could not. Although different in their approach, but sharing the same beliefs about students, these teachers did whatever it took to ensure students received a quality education. They made sure that students were present and engaged. They never allowed their students to fail; this task was easier said than done.  Like most teachers, it was not unusual to find these teachers staying after school to provide extra help, spending their Saturday mornings conducting tutorials in the local library, and communicating with parents on a regular basis. In my previous school, these behaviors were demonstrated by a majority of teachers, at different degrees respectably. However, there were several teachers in particular that received the most accolades from students, parents, and community members. What made these specific teachers so effective and highly requested among students and parents? In my quest to supporting my hypothesis, I visited a kindergarten classroom taught by Mrs. Kaufman, perhaps one of my favorite kindergarten teachers.

Daily, she worked hard to ensure that her students received the best education. This dedication meant never giving up on her students or parents. Throughout the school year, she remained sincere in her teaching style, yet brutally honest in her academic diagnoses, but she would always end those conversations with “we will get them there.” Her classroom was full of energy and love, yet there was a noticeable distinction. Easily to discern to a naïve individual would be race; Mrs. Kaufman was White and her students were Black. While accurate and an essential factor in the equation, race was not the most notable distinction. It was the healthy relationships she had with the students.

The much-needed campaign to recruit teachers of color is germane to the advancement of all students, and vital to building a better narrative for students in education. Some research suggests that teachers of color are likely to be more effective in producing positive academic and behavioral outcomes for same-race students. However, it is not a requirement to have a shared race, background, or experience in order to connect. Mrs. Kaufman’s success illustrates how building a relationship, setting expectations, and working to keep your students engaged are key to creating a conducive learning environment.

While there’s been an increase in the racial diversity in the public school teacher workforce, it is still dominated by white (82 percent), female teachers (76 percent). Local and state agencies struggle with recruiting and retaining teachers, especially teachers of color, for many reasons, and this problem will not be solved quickly. Yet, we are making great strides as programs, such as Call Me MISTER, work tirelessly to help increase the 2 percent of Black males teachers in American schools. More urgently, school districts should focus their efforts on trying to improve the quality of instruction for students of color now.

One necessary part of that work: schools must examine and reform their disciplinary policies and practices. Black students, boys especially, continue to be referred for discipline or suspended from school at alarmingly disproportionate rates. This means that these students become less engaged in their coursework or school as a whole. The instructional time they lose affects their academic progress. State and local educational agencies must work to reduce these referral disparities — and classroom teachers and school building administrators must be at the forefront of this work, increasing their efforts to build healthier relationships with students.

Although administrators are vital key players, teachers play the most critical role in engaging students in learning. Joint efforts among principals, teachers, and students can collaboratively develop effective interventions targeted on improving teachers and schools’ discipline practices — exploring their beliefs and raising expectations for students of color. A clear focus on building relationships with students — much like Mrs. Kaufman did — is likely to reduce biases teachers might hold and increase student engagement in the classroom and the learning process.

Being culturally responsive and sensitive are critical to these efforts, regardless of the race of the teacher or the student. Do not misinterpret me; a teacher’s race matters when teaching students of color, and so does a teacher’s ability to build relationships.