Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Formative Assessment

Each year, my district decides on a focus for the professional development. This year it's formative assessment. I like the idea of formative assessment. I like doing un-graded exit problems, or asking a question and then choosing a student's name from a shuffled deck of index cards, or Poll Everywhere or Bell-ringer/Warm-up questions or even something as mundane as a practice quiz. I don't use it nearly  as much as I should, but I like it.

Here's the thing that confuses me: Isn't formative assessment just part of good teaching? If you're just standing up there talking at kids and only taking the time to figure out what they know/don't know, what misconceptions there are, what the pre-existing knowledge base is, when you've finished talking, then you're not really doing your job. The advantage of having a real, living, breathing classroom teacher is the ability to collect data and make near-instantaneous changes to improve the learning experience. This is something that a virtual presence (read: online video tutorials) can't do right now.

But, I'm over the fact that someone who probably doesn't know as much as I do is going to tell me how to start incorporating formative assessment. The issue I have is that my district is also really big into conformity right now. What I mean is, everyone has to use the same formative assessment. What is the purpose for this? No one can give me an answer beyond, "Everyone should do the same thing" or "Collaboration is good". If we really want everyone to do the same thing, then we should plop our students in front of on-line videos and hope for the best. I agree the collaboration is good, but in my experience, a group of more than 4 math teachers who have been assigned to work together have too many different philosophies of education and mathematics to create a usable product. 

Moreover, I believe that formative assessment is supposed to give the teacher information about how things are going in your classroom. It should be short and only on 1 topic (2 at most). You need to read the answers yourself to get any information. And the kids should get them back the next day (at the latest) so that they can use your feedback to progress.

These are the things I overheard today in the teacher's room:

"I had the students grade each others' papers and then I wrote down the score."
WHAT?! How are you (the teacher) supposed to get any information if you didn't read and evaluate the answers yourself? You've missed the whole point.

"I don't understand why it can't be a minor grade for the student."
WHAT?! The whole purpose of formative assessment is for you (the teacher) and them (the students) to get some information about who knows what and how well. If it's a grade, then you are potentially punishing students for not being proficient when you should help them learn it first. And don't get me started on how ridiculous grades are anyway

I'm going to keep doing formative assessment because it's helpful and it's important and it's revealing. But I won't give the crappy assessments designed in committee because they're crappy and because they're not going to tell me anything worth knowing. 

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