Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Formative Assessment-the time is NOW!

Yesterday I attended a lecture/seminar by Dylan Wiliam. In case you've been under a rock, he is the co-author of the meta-analysis of formative assessment research studies with Paul Black. Their work was reported in the publication Inside the Black Box. He has also authored other books and papers and articles on formative assessment. There is no doubt that the formative assessment process has the power to change the achievement of students when it is used with integrity by teachers. As Wiliam said yesterday, "You are entitled to your own opinions. You are not entitled to your own facts."

So, this blog post isn't going to be a fancy work of writing. I am just in a hurry to get some of my initial thoughts down as I wait for NWEA to send out a link to the slides from the presentation.

Wiliam spent the better part of an hour and a half first outlining the reasons that it is a MORAL IMPERATIVE that teachers improve their practice. A couple of the data bits that I included in my notes:

1. For every year a person spends in school (not counting teachers teaching!), 1.7 years is added to that person's life.

2. The more years spent in school, the higher the person's salary. (No specific data on this one...I didn't write it down and as I said, no access to slides yet. I will update this piece when I have the information.)

3. Being with a good teacher for ONE year means an extra $50,000 income for a student.

Wiliam also talked a bit about the data supporting better pay for teachers. And this is base pay...the data shows that the more a country pays their teachers, the better the teachers are. But this does not hold true for merit pay, which serves to create competition rather than collaboration in teachers.  If you are interested in some studies about bonuses and merit pay in the work place, read Daniel Pink's Drive.

Wiliam believes that the best way to improve student achievement is through the use of the formative assessment process. There are over 5000 research studies that support formative assessment as an educational practice that has significant positive impact on student achievement.

But discussing formative assessment can be a tricky business. There are many definitions out there. In fact, during the presentation, he shared a slide with 7 examples of practices people may consider to be formative. The audience (mainly administrators but also some classroom teachers) had to decide if they were formative assessment examples or not. There was not consensus on any of the examples. I find this the most difficult part in my work as a Formative Assessment Coach--discussing and deciding what examples do and do not represent the formative assessment process.

But Wiliam addressed this issue by saying, "Rather than ask which is formative, ask which has the bigger impact on student achievement." Ahhh....lightbulb! I love that, because impacting student achievement is really what formative assessment is about.

Wiliam also addressed the concern I hear about formative assessment being "just another thing to do." In several slides, he aligned the formative assessment strategies with the elements of other instructional models: Danielson's Framework for Teaching, Differentiated Instruction, other that I can't remember right now. The slides showed the overlap of the practices and effects of the models and how they can live together in our teaching. Maybe I'll try to explain this more after I have access to the slides.

Wiliam gave some examples of formative assessment in practice. I'm not going to share all of them here, but some highlights:
No more hand-raising to answer questions. This mirrors what Mike Schmoker says in his book Focus. When we allow students to answer questions based on raised hands, we only have engagement from those students. We are giving the rest permission to NOT attend. So Wiliam suggested using thumbs up/down (for answering questions, NOT for self-reporting!), using ABCD cards, and carefully planning the questions we will ask during our lessons.

In the next part of his talk, Wiliam discussed the best method for teachers to learn about and to learn how to implement the formative assessment process through Teacher Learning Communities. He spent a couple of slides comparing his idea of TLCs to DuBour's theories on Professional Learning Communities (PLCs.) I LOVE the fact that he is positing that this embedded and collaborative method of professional development is the best way to go, because it mirrors the goals and vision of the Formative Assessment for Michigan Educators (FAME) project.

Briefly, these are the elements that Wiliam says must be a part of TLCs studying and implementing formative assessment.
Choice (in the FAME project, we strongly recommend that FA teams are comprised of people who volunteer to take part.)
Flexibility (coaches in the FAME project have the freedom to set up meetings in ways that best meet their teams needs--and teams decide in what order to study and implement the parts of the process.)
Small steps (FAMEs multi-year approach allows teachers to take their time to change practice.)
Commitment--I wonder if this is an area where we need to step things up in the FAME project. I know that with my own team, we are probably overdue to renew our commitment to changing our practice.
Support--It was nice that the seminar was really advertised for administrators. In the FAME project, we also encourage administrators to attend the team launches, and we find that the teams who have the best administrative support seem to be the stronger teams.

Expertise: I can't remember if this was one of the elements of TLCs or just an aside that Wiliam addressed, but it was very interesting. His point was that expertise is created by PRACTICE, and that in most professional development initiatives, we have a knowing-doing gap. We KNOW what to do, but DOING it proves to be very hard. Wiliam explained that much of what we do in the day-to-day moments of teacher are unconscious, and unconscious habits are the hardest ones to break. It's why we fall back in to our old ways of doing when times get difficult!

Ok, going to finish off this post with some great sound bites from the day...these would make great tweets!!

"If teachers don't think they can do better, they will blame the kids when the kids 'fail'."

"If students learned what we taught, we wouldn't have to assess." Wiliam said this when illustrating his point that we use assessment to be sure that students have learned what we taught because we can't be sure---students get it wrong a lot, even when we think we've taught it well.

"Finding out on the unit test that kids haven't learned it is too late."

"If you let kids raise their hands to answer questions, you increase the achievement gap."

"Smart is not something you are. Smart is something you get. By attempting difficult work and getting it wrong."

When a student, called on randomly, says they don't know: "Yes, but if you DID know, what would you say?"

"Grading is the punishment for not getting the learning right when they were in front of you."

"The effects of feedback on achievement depend on the relationship between teacher and learner. Only when we know the student do we know when to push and when to back off."

"Feedback should be more work for the recipient than the donor."

On a strengths-based approach to professional development: "Building teacher strengths creates better teachers than focusing on weakness."

In regards to asking teachers to stop some practices in order to incorporate new practices learned in professional development Teacher Learning Communities: "We have to STOP people doing GOOD things to give them time to do BETTER things."