A report on formative assessment practice in classrooms recently released by Education First focuses on three different urban districts—Austin Independent School District (AISD), Denver Public Schools (DPS), and Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS). Several important findings in the report have implications for Tennessee, particularly related to the 2015-16 State of Education in Tennessee recommendations to implement rigorous, aligned assessments that produce the best data possible and to empower teachers to ensure the best outcomes for students.
Through surveys, observations of teachers, and interviews with school and district leaders, the study’s authors sought to address:
1. To what extent do teachers engage in true formative assessment practice?
• How do teachers alter instruction based on formative assessment data?
• How do teachers manage the logistics of individualizing and differentiating instruction?
2. To what extent do technology tools aid teachers in collecting, analyzing, and/or acting upon formative data?
3. What kind of support do districts and schools provide for formative assessment?
4. What barriers exist to classroom instruction that is routinely adjusted based on formative data?
By pursuing these questions, the authors identified several key findings, including:
Finding 1: Teachers cited use of some form of formative assessment practices regularly, but could improve some practices. Teachers were strongest in formative assessment practices involving questioning, wait-time, and adjusting instruction within lessons. However, the authors concluded that there was little evidence of using various types of feedback to support student learning, specifically peer assessment.
Finding 2: Teachers who reported more frequent use of formative assessment practices also reported more use of technology and the use of technology specifically for formative assessment depended on teachers’ current understanding and use of best practices. Ensuring teachers understand formative assessment best practices first may enable them to use technology more comfortably as an aid to formative assessment practices.
Finding 3: Teachers reported they often turned to their colleagues for support, as district support was often lacking. Districts reported difficulty finding a common definition for formative assessment and what constitutes best practices. Districts must establish a common definition of what constitutes formative assessment best practices. Also, there must be training opportunities that focus specifically on implementing best practices, and evaluations must include formative assessment use as a component to foster conversations about improvement.
Finding 4: There were significant barriers to implementing formative assessment practices. Particular concerns included pressure teachers experienced from following strict pacing guides and the feeling that teachers could not act upon collected data due to a lack of time. Districts also cited over-testing concerns as a barrier to implementing formative assessment practices.
Keeping these findings from the report in mind, there are a few specific elements that Tennessee should consider:
1. Teachers need training and time to incorporate all elements of effective formative assessment, including providing feedback and acting on data.
2. Helping teachers understand formative assessment best practices more broadly may be an important first step to helping them use technology as an aid.
3. Given Tennessee’s current position in its summative assessment implementation, it may be valuable to consider over-testing concerns as we strive to train and support teachers to use many different types of formative assessments.
4. Tennessee should continue to support district and school leaders to use the evaluation system to have improvement-centered conversations with teachers about their formative assessment practices.
Effective use of formative assessments is an essential component of high-quality instructional practice. It is important that our state leaders and educators use findings such as these to encourage reflection and discussion on current formative assessment practices, and evaluate critically how Tennessee teachers can be supported to implement effective formative assessment practices into their classrooms.