Formative Assessment 301 – Part 2: High Quality Discussion with Teachers

In this module, we are going to discuss three tools and resources that can be used to move teacher practice forward with respect to formative assessment processes: 1) Student Work Analysis Protocol; 2) Formative Assessment Discussion Tool for School Leaders; and 3) Professional learning about the art of conferring with students.

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Developed by Carla Evans & Jeri Thompson
National Center for the Improvement of Educational Assessment


Welcome to Module 2: Formative Assessment: High-quality discussions between school leaders and teachers about formative assessment processes. This module is part of Micro-Course 3: Supporting teachers to accelerate learning using formative assessment processes in the classroom, created by the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence and the Center for Assessment. There is an Introduction Module to Micro-Course 3 that explains the purpose, organization, and intended use of each micro-course and should be watched first, if you have not already done so.

As a warm-up to this module we ask you to consider the following question: If you were to ask teachers what they need in order to use formative assessment information to monitor/adjust their instruction and improve student learning, what do you think they would say they need the most?

Please pause the video and respond to this question either alone or with colleagues. After your reflection or discussion, resume playing the video.

We acknowledge that what teachers need most to use formative assessment information may vary from teacher-to-teacher or school-to-school. However, it is likely that teachers will mention something about: [click enter] TIME! But we all know that it isn’t just about time in general, but time to do specific things that are most helpful to teachers, whether they recognize it or not. [click enter]. For example, teachers need time to make sense of the data; collaborate and discuss with other grade level/content area teachers; to understand how to confer with students and continually gather new information.

It is also likely not a mystery to you that there are many possible school structures that can provide teachers with more TIME to collaborate, work together, and process student thinking together such as common planning time, professional learning communities, grade level meetings, professional development sessions, and so on. Time and supportive school structures represent the baseline conditions needed to support teachers. BUT what are the tools and resources that can be used to move teacher practice forward?

In this module, we are going to discuss three tools and resources that can be used to move teacher practice forward with respect to formative assessment processes.
1) Student Work Analysis Protocol
2) Formative Assessment Discussion Tool for School Leaders
3) Professional learning about the art of conferring with students

We discuss each in turn.

First, student work analysis provides a window into how students construct meaning of key concepts and skills. And when teachers use a process for analyzing student work, especially when they collaborate and work together to analyze student thinking, they can use that information to improve instructional decisions for individual students and groups of students.

One recommendation is that you use the Student Work Analysis Protocol hyperlinked on the screen and walk through the process alongside groups of teachers during common planning time, PLC time, etc. Once you’ve done this at least once with all the teachers in your school or district, you will have a sense of how teachers are thinking about student learning and what constitutes high-quality work. Additionally, the teachers will understand how to use the protocol on their own and you can check back in with them over time to see what they are gleaning about past and future instruction from student work analysis.

A couple of caveats. The student work collected needs to show evidence of student thinking. It makes no sense to analyze work from a multiple choice test, as students do not show their thinking so it’s unclear if they guessed the correct answer or their rationale for choosing an incorrect answer. That said, well-designed multiple choice items can provide the teacher with insight into students’ general misconceptions. The quality and type of student work selected makes a huge difference so make sure to ask teachers to bring a certain type of work to the group.

The second tool we suggest school leaders use with teachers to help them use formative assessment information to monitor/adjust instruction and improve student learning is the Formative Assessment Discussion Tool for School Leaders, hyperlinked on the bottom right hand side of the screen.

This discussion tool has three columns. The first column lists the five embedded formative assessment strategies from Dylan Wiliam’s framework. The second column includes key questions that school leaders can use during classroom observations, information discussions with teachers, or professional development to ascertain the extent to which teachers are using each of the embedded formative assessment strategies. So, for example, the first embedded formative assessment strategy is “sharing learning intentions and success criteria”. The key questions include: Is it clear what students are trying to learn? Has the teacher illustrated or described what success, or hitting the target, looks like? The third column then provides a note-taking space to capture evidence of the practices in classrooms or discuss possible approaches with teachers.

Not only are each of the five formative assessment strategies explained in detail, but also potential observed or discussed practices are provided for each of the strategies, as well as the evidence you may see in the classroom of the implementation of the five strategies.

Using this discussion tool with teachers can help teachers understand how they can monitor and adjust their instruction, which is critical as we should not assume that teachers know how to use formative assessment information to change or adapt their instruction.

Before we discuss student conferrals, we think it is important to note that another way a school leader can support teachers to use formative assessment information to monitor/adjust their instruction is to not be overly prescriptive with grading policies. School leaders have control over grading policies in their school and when school leaders require teachers to enter a certain number of grades/week or quarter for each student, the formative uses of assessment information are often thwarted. School leaders can instead encourage teachers to provide written comments on assessments used for formative purposes rather than grades. School leaders can also encourage teachers not to enter the results of formative assessments into gradebooks!

A final way that school leaders can support teachers in using formative assessment information to monitor/adjust their instruction is through student conferences. However, it may be useful and/or necessary to provide teachers with some professional learning about the art of student conferrals.

Conferring is simply a conversation with a purpose and it is at the heart of teaching and learning–talking with students about what they are thinking. Conferring should represent genuine curiosity about student thinking with a goal of using a greater understanding of how and what students are thinking in order to monitor/adjust instruction.

Conferring data IS formative assessment data. It’s the moment-by-moment information gleaned through informal to formal conversations with students about their thinking. This information gathered over the course of a lesson or over multiple days can be used to wrap-up a lesson or unit of study, inform the start of the next day’s lesson, make decisions about how to differentiate instruction, and flexibly group students for learning.

On the following slides we provide you with information or slides you could use to talk with teachers about their conferral processes and how they use the information from those student conferrals to adapt their instruction, differentiate instruction, and improve student learning.

We start by describing the conferring process. The process starts with attending to what students are doing, how/what they are saying, and the thinking that underlies their actions and words. The next step is interpreting. The teacher must interpret what he sees or hears. Some interpretation questions are listed on the slide. For example, where are students in a continuum of understanding? What strategies are students trying? What are they struggling with and why? and so on. The teacher then decides, based on their interpretation of student thinking, whether to elicit further or nudge students. To elicit means among other things to probe student thinking more and try to get a better understanding of what they are thinking. Nudging is when a teacher understands (or thinks they understand) what students are thinking, but wants to push their thinking forward in some way.

Jennifer Munson’s book, In the Moment, is an excellent resource for considering student conferrals. The book is written in the context of mathematics, but the book is really grade level and content area agnostic. We pulled some of her eliciting and probing moves or starter questions she provides for getting the conversation started with students, following up on what students say, and targeting specific aspects of their thinking. You can download the starter questions we gathered from her book on the attached resource. It may be helpful to provide teachers with a copy of these questions so they can have easy access to them and use them as a reference when they are meeting with and conferring with students.

The most helpful thing teachers can do to gather information that can be used to monitor or adapt their instruction in real-time is something that seems very simple. It is to actively listen to students. It’s not important to specify whether the teacher is eliciting, probing, or nudging. But it is crucial that the teacher routinely employs wait time, a stance of “say more about that” or even, “I’m interested in hearing more about that” since it shifts from an imperative, to a statement of the speaker’s mind, which seems to me to be much more inviting, and demonstrates curiosity with respect to the questions related to student thinking.

Active listening places a teacher in the productive stance of asking open and authentic questions, where teachers are not trying to get students to the “right” answer, catching kids being off task, or looking for routine errors. Instead, the teacher simply tries to understand student thinking and then use that to figure out how to help the student move towards greater levels of understanding and complexity.

In this closing slide, we note classroom conditions that allow for the conversations between school leaders and classroom teachers. Specifically, what type of instructional tasks are teachers using to elicit student thinking? As discussed earlier with respect to student work analysis, there are some tasks that students are asked to complete that are more useful for making student thinking visible than others. Rich instructional performance tasks, open-ended problems with multiple solutions, and tasks that elicit application of disciplinary practices are some examples of the kinds of rich instructional activities that promote deeper learning and formative information that teachers can use to monitor/adapt instruction and support improved student learning.

Modules 1, 3, and 4 in Micro-Course 3 go deeper into supporting teachers in the specific aspects of Dylan Wiliam’s framework. This slide provides an advanced organizer so that you know which module you can go to in order to find out more about certain topics including: supporting high-quality formative assessment processes in the classroom, supporting teachers’ selection or creation of formative assessments, and supporting teachers in engaging students and their peers in the formative assessment process.

We believe that it is essential to take a few minutes to reflect upon what you just heard, organize it in your own mind, and to apply it to your classroom assessment practice. Pause to reflect and respond to the following:
1) Explain a couple ways that you can support teachers to make appropriate decisions that improve instruction and student learning?
2) To what extent does your school have structures in place to promote teacher collaboration? What changes, if any, would you like to work towards in this respect?
3) How could you help teachers use student work analysis to monitor/adjust their future instruction?
4) How could you use teacher observations/evaluations and professional development to promote teacher use of formative assessment information?
5) What is one key takeaway and one lingering question you have after listening to this module?

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