Formative Assessment is a Relationship

There is a fascinating series of posts at the Living in Dialogue blog at Ed Week by Anthony Cody, who is in a discussion with the DOE about President Obama’s remarks at a Univision Town Hall that were highly critical of testing. Cody pointed out to the DOE that the administration’s proposed changes to NCLB/ESEA continue to rely heavily on standardized testing for accountability, and expand the role of testing by requiring it, in RTTT, as an element in teacher evaluation.  Thus Obama appeared to be critical of his own policies, and In the context of explaining what he would want for his own daughters, who attend private school:

What is true, though, is, is that we have piled on a lot of standardized tests on our kids. Now, there’s nothing wrong with a standardized test being given occasionally just to give a baseline of where kids are at. Malia and Sasha, my two daughters, they just recently took a standardized test. But it wasn’t a high-stakes test. It wasn’t a test where they had to panic. I mean, they didn’t even really know that they were going to take it ahead of time. They didn’t study for it, they just went ahead and took it. And it was a tool to diagnose where they were strong, where they were weak, and what the teachers needed to emphasize.

Too often what we’ve been doing is using these tests to punish students or to, in some cases, punish schools. And so what we’ve said is let’s find a test that everybody agrees makes sense; let’s apply it in a less pressured-packed atmosphere… and let’s make sure that that’s not the only way we’re judging whether a school is doing well.

…one thing I never want to see happen is schools that are just teaching to the test. Because then you’re not learning about the world… And that’s not going to make education interesting to you. And young people do well in stuff that they’re interested in. They’re not going to do as well if it’s boring.

The President seemed to be saying that his daughters were taking a formative assessment test, “a tool to diagnose where they were strong, where they were weak, and what teachers needed to do…”  And he seemed to be saying in general that these kinds of tests are useful, and summative tests that are used to “punish” schools are not useful.

Cody’s questions about these apparent contradictions and the DOE spokesperson’s responses are interesting and I think that his questions are on target. The DOE rep does a fairly decent job of responding. It’s a complex situation.  A big challenge seems to be managing the trade-offs of accountability systems.   We want some accountability system so that the public knows whether schools are successful or not in teaching students how to read and do math, and to avoid the pre-NCLB status quo when there was no public data on  achievement gaps. However, the data and the standardized tests themselves are blunt instruments that easily turn into bludgeons.  What is the middle ground?

Punishing schools and shutting down schools can disrupt and damage a community rather than provide it with better education. When we worked for years on converting schools at the start of the Oakland small schools movement, there were community (parent) representatives on each school design team and the process was driven by teacher-community partnerships rather than central office mandate. It is not enough to call for an end to all summative testing without offering a new method of accountability. But surely urban school accountability should look more like suburban accountability, where parents hold schools accountable through formal and informal relationships and pressures of all kinds (including insistence that their kids are prepared for SAT/ACT college exams). Urban communities rocked by disinvestment and poverty may have less capacity to advocate for their children, but urban districts have tended to have much less capacity to cultivate and honor community advocacy as well.

If authentic and productive school accountability could be more relationship driven, so can assessments themselves. In one of his posts on the controversy, Cody quotes a Dr. Atkin, who makes important distinctions between true and false formative assessments:

Regrettably, the testing companies have hijacked the formative label… The key benefits of formative assessment emphasized in the research literature are associated with changes in the classroom that result when teachers and students collaborate closely in examining the quality of student work. What does quality look like? What might the student do to improve school work to bring it to a higher quality than it is right now? This integration of teaching, learning, and assessment is complex work, but potent. It takes time and effort: hours, days, weeks, and months – not the periodic 15 or 20 minutes needed to respond to questions purchased from a remote “item bank” developed by the testing companies to foreshadow the final examination.

Formative assessment works when students and teachers together are looking at the student’s work and determining what the student needs to work on to improve. If student’s don’t understand the gap between where they are and where they need to go, they can’t improve. A top-down test that is designed just to assess whether or not they got it cannot guide teaching and learning well. You need to have a Partnership for Learning.

Diane Ravitch on the Daily Show recently did not make the case that compellingly.  When she mentioned Finland, which leads in international standardized tests but does not require standardized tests to measure progress, she should have pointed out what Linda Darling-Hammond does in her recent work:

The process of change has been almost the reverse of policies in the United States. Over the past 40 years, Finland has shifted from a highly centralized [Soviet] system emphasizing external testing to a more localized system in which highly trained teachers design curriculum around the very lean national standards. This new system is implemented through equitable funding and extensive preparation for all teachers. The logic of the system is that investments in the capacity of local teachers and schools to meet the needs of all students, coupled with thoughtful guidance about goals, can unleash the benefits of local creativity in the cause of common, equitable outcome.

Now how can we get there from here?

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