Sunday, April 18, 2010

Assessment for learning rediscovered: what teachers do in reading groups

Tremendous energy is going into thinking about how Kentucky teachers can gather evidence of what students know and can do and quickly use that evidence to adjust their teaching.  That effort is spoken of as "formative assessment" in Senate Bill 1 and as "assessment for learning" in many educator conversations around the state.

And yet, I only remembered yesterday afternoon that I saw this practice in work when I was five.

In my first-grade reading group, Mrs. Parsons listened as each of us read aloud.  Often she'd let us work through the entire passage, but sometimes she'd offer quick help with a troublesome word.  Or she'd have us all work with a particular consonant blend for a couple of minutes.  Occasionally, she'd move a few of us into different reading groups, based on the progress we'd been making in recent weeks. Eventually (because the school was ferociously tracked), she even arranged for me to switch from her classrom to Mrs. Bauman's.

In all of that, she was gathering evidence and using it to adjust instruction, often making decisions right in the middle of our work.

I've blogged briefly about the work on mathematics assessment for learning being done in six Kentucky districts through a Gates Foundation grant to the Prichard Committee.  There, folks are working on high school level mathematics. In some ways, the student tasks being used are very different from beginning reading.  And yet, at its heart, there's a model of teachers engaging students in active work and responding in "real time" to the strengths and weaknesses students reveal that seems remarkably like what Mrs. Parsons did so long ago.

The heart of formative assessment is gathering evidence to adjust instruction, with the adjustment part sometimes coming within minutes of the evidence emerging.


  1. If your summary of formative assessment is correct, then I don't believe a focus on formative assessment will be the game-changer that so many believe it can be. "gathering evidence to adjust instruction" clearly still shows a major focus on TEACHING, yet Stiggins calls it Assessment for LEARNING.

    "Formative assessment occurs when teachers feed information back to students in ways that enable the student to learn better, or when students can engage in a similar, self- reflective process." (

    While instructional adjustments can be a nice side effect of formative assessment, I'm more curious about how we can use formative assessment to bring the learners center stage. Summative assessments of any kind are focused on teachers and allow educators to make curriculum, program, and other administrative changes. Formative assessments are all about focusing the classroom on the students and allowing them to document, celebrate, reflect on their learning.

  2. Thomas,

    Let me say right out that the teachers I know who are working on assessment for learning are all focused on what happens for learners. In writing the post above, I see that I've used language that didn't underline that point, and instead spoke of what teachers do as though the teaching itself was the goal. I didn't mean to imply that.

  3. I didn't think you meant to imply that (and I've seen the same in my work with teachers). Part of my efforts however are to change the culture for assessment in our state. As such, changing the conversation is an important step. The types of words we choose when talking about learning are key to changing the minds of all stakeholders.

    I try to do that as often as I can and sometimes it's just simple things, but I do believe that changes in language can translate into changes in action.


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