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Taking a “Formative Assessment Stance”

magnifying glass with gearsThe following post is an excerpt from an online discussion led by educator and NCTE facilitator Scott Filkins. 

I never meant to be a teacher who thought of assessment as a deep and sustaining professional interest, largely because I started teaching just before NCLB began to wield its authority, and because for a good part of my career I worked under administrators who were true believers in the Texas miracle. Within these constraints, assessment to me meant test—a noun, a document—as in “Give the assessment at the end of the instructional cycle, per the timeline in the pacing guide.” This view held no appeal for me.

I’ve been fortunate to have experienced relief from this unproductive perspective, helped in part by documents such as the NCTE-IRA Standards for the Assessment of Reading and Writing and by coursework in qualitative research methods, where I figured out that real assessment, the kind of quality formative assessment that leads to changes in instruction and student learning, is just paying really close attention to kids. Studying their responses to instruction through their talk, their writing, their nonverbal reactions—this was something I could really commit to. And doing so, it turned out, helped me teach better.

But I recognize that it wasn’t just a few watershed realizations about what constitutes effective assessment that propelled my transformation to someone who can talk about assessment without feeling guilty or embarrassed. It was that I had enough experience as a teacher—as a Writing Project affiliate, as a student of effective practice in adolescent literacy instruction, as someone who works hard to be aware of his own literate practices—to have the pedagogical capacity to need the information from formative assessment to know what to do next. My planning questions evolved from “What content do I need to teach next?” to “Based on what I learned about my kids today, how am I going to model or group students differently tomorrow?”

Supporting my ability to take a formative assessment stance was a stronger understanding of what it means for a student to develop as a reader and writer. And I experienced all this growth in the company of colleagues who were also being supported with common planning time and professional development targeted toward higher degrees of responsiveness in instruction.

As we start this school year, though, I’m seeing lots of signs of a return to a narrower vision of assessment. A new wave of high stakes tests attached to a relatively new set of standards has lots of people worried, and in that fear I’m seeing a reversion to the desire to buy products, nearly sight unseen, that promise to give teachers the “answers they need” to support students toward the goals of standards and assessments. Lots of money—lots of money—is going toward new assessments and assessment systems in our district, as I imagine it is elsewhere. How much more effective would that investment be if it were devoted to developing teacher knowledge about effective instruction, about inquiry-based assessment practices, and about the inextricable link between the two?


There are still spots available in an online course on formative assessment Scott Filkins will teach starting in February.