Are Our Classrooms Ready for Formative Assessment?

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

Formative assessment is often understood in terms of the names we give various formative assessment techniques: exit slips, thumbs up/thumbs down, KWL charts, etc., but understanding formative assessment this way is limiting because it’s much more than merely undertaking a series of clever and engaging techniques. Rather, as Moss and Brookhart (2009) assert, it is a philosophy of teaching, a persistent instructional approach. Enacting meaningful formative assessment relies on recognizing that it is an ongoing process of collecting information, analyzing and making inferences, providing feedback, and using the information to make informed instructional decisions.  Laying the groundwork for this approach necessarily requires us to consider what changes may need to be made in our classrooms.

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Fostering a classroom environment that maximizes the full potential of formative assessment takes time and patience and, well, teaching. After all, students may not show up knowing how to function in a classroom where formative assessment is a predominant philosophy. They, and their teachers, may need to unlearn habits that have become ingrained or to wrestle with the discomfort that such a classroom may create. Teachers will need to be committed to an intentional, consistent focus on creating a classroom culture where genuine formative assessment is truly at work.

So, what does a formative assessment classroom look like?

  • The classroom culture values ideas, not answers. Students are willing to take risks and try things rather than focusing on the expected or “right” response.
  • The classroom is a discourse community. Students talk to each other. They listen carefully and respond respectfully. They discuss ideas and support their thinking with relevant evidence.
  • The classroom practice is to ensure that students truly understand both the intended learning outcomes and success criteria. Students are able to apply their understanding of these in order to assess their own progress and their peers’ progress as well. Students are adept at giving and receiving feedback.
  • The teacher is not the only teacher in the room. Students, too, have ownership for teaching, and the teacher models an effective learner mindset.

It’s not a far leap to imagine that a classroom committed to this philosophy of formative assessment is also likely to foster student metacognition, self-regulation, and a growth mindset. Virginia’s 5Cs –creative thinking, critical thinking, collaboration, communication, and citizenship – are also supported by such classrooms. I would contend, then, that these are characteristics not only of the formative assessment classroom but more broadly of the thinking classroom, something we must all be genuinely committed to achieving.