Excerpted from Using Formative Assessment to Enhance Learning, Achievement, and Academic Self‑Regulation, written by Heidi Andrade and WestEd’s Margaret Heritage. Copyright © 2018 by Taylor & Francis. With permission of the publisher, Taylor & Francis. All rights reserved.

Chapter Two: Actionable Principles of Formative Assessment

Chapter Two illustrates three key principles for effective implementation of formative assessment, each related to the three framing questions in Chapter One. The principles include the integration of assessment into the process of teaching and learning, using assessment evidence to advance learning, and using assessment to support student self-regulation. Examples from elementary and middle school classrooms are used to show how the principles can be enacted.

Assessment is useful for informing ongoing teaching and learning when it provides a prospective view of learning in order to answer the question, “What is next for this student?” (Heritage, 2013a). As you can probably tell, it is this function of assessment that we find most compelling as educators. Why? Because effective formative assessment practice involves teachers and students in understanding where students currently are in their learning while they are still in the process of learning, and in making decisions about how to move that learning forward (Bell & Cowie, 2000; Heritage, 2010a, 2010b, 2013b; Swaffield, 2011). And as we saw in the example of Emily and Jason in Chapter 1, involving students in decisions about their own learning supports self-regulation.

Formative assessment is not an orthodoxy. It will likely look different in different teachers’ classrooms and in different content areas. As Christine Harrison and Sally Howard observe, it is “consistency of principle” that matters in formative assessment, not “uniformity of practice” (2009, p. 32). In this chapter, we illustrate three key principles of practice for effective formative assessment, derived from the literature and verified from our firsthand knowledge of what occurs in classrooms:

Principle 1: Assessment is integrated into the process of teaching and learning.

Principle 2: Assessment evidence is used to move learning forward.

Principle 3: Assessment supports student self-regulation.

Enacting these principles enables teachers and their students to answer the three framing questions of formative assessment that we introduced in Chapter One: Where are we going? Where are we now? Where to next?

The process of teaching and learning is initiated and guided by the question: Where are we going? In other words, what are the goals of the lesson and how will we know if we have reached the goal? Opportunities to find out where students are in their learning (Where are we now?) arise during the learning process, both from teachers’ planned Actionable Principles 27 strategies and from students’ self-assessment. The evidence that emerges from these two sources is used to move learning forward, answering the third question: Where to next? In response to evidence, the teacher adjusts instruction or provides feedback to the students, which they use to improve their learning; the students also make decisions about their own learning tactics as a result of their internal feedback from self-assessment. In both instances, feedback is leveraged to support student self-regulation.

Next we will illustrate the three principles and three questions, first in the context of a middle school classroom, and then in a first-grade classroom.

Middle School Classroom

In this middle school classroom, students are learning to write persuasive essays. Ms. Roberts, the teacher, stands at the front of the class by the whiteboard, and the students are seated at desks close to her and to each other. Ms. Roberts begins by saying:

So, you have been working on your essays. And one of the things I noticed when I was looking at your essays last night is . . . you guys have moves . . . you know something about essay writing. I was looking through all of your essays, and I was thinking about some of the things you know about how to make strong arguments.

She then turns to a large Post-it Note pasted on the whiteboard and on which she has written:

What we already know about strong arguments….

  • There is a strong claim.
  • The claim has support (reasons).
  • There is evidence for every reason.
  • The essays should hook you, and set up the essay.
  • There is a conclusion.
  • There is some discussion of the counterclaim.

Ms. Roberts then goes over the list, providing information about each item. She tells the students that based on what she has seen from their current writing, they are ready to “lift the level of their essays up,” that they have “got the foundation down,” and that the purpose of today’s lesson is to “build the building.”

In the next part of the lesson, Ms. Roberts uses a “mentor” text — a long body paragraph that she has displayed so that the students can analyze what authors do, in her words, “to make strong arguments.” After she reads the paragraph aloud, she asks the students to separate into small groups and discuss, “What is it about this part of an essay that makes it strong and persuasive?” While the students talk with each other, Ms. Roberts circulates, listening to the groups’ conversations and intervening to probe what they are saying or to help them elaborate points.

Next, Ms. Roberts asks the students to come together as a whole group. She then leads a whole-class session to co-construct criteria for how they could make their own essays stronger and more developed, drawing from their previous discussions about the author’s craft. When students offer their ideas, she consistently asks them to cite the basis for them in the text. As the students agree on the criteria, the teacher writes them on the whiteboard. At the end of the discussion, this is what she has written:

Ways we can develop our essays:

  • Add specific/precise details.
  • Choose the best, most persuasive evidence.
  • Use tone to give voice to our essays.
  • Connect how our evidence supports our reasons.

Ms. Roberts then invites the students to consider these criteria, “or anything else the author did to hers,” in order to develop their essays further. After a period of reflection, the students exchange ideas with a partner about the current status of their essay and what each one is going to do, using some or all of the criteria, to strengthen his or her essay. Then they move to their own seats and continue with their essay writing.

Formative assessment takes place in the ongoing flow of activity and interactions in the classroom (Swaffield, 2011). It is not an adjunct to teaching, but rather is integrated into the process of teaching and learning (Principle 1). In this vignette, Ms. Roberts had examined students’ first attempts at writing a persuasive essay and was able to determine what students knew about this genre of writing (Where are we now?), which she communicated to the students. Based on this evidence, she determined that the students were at a point where they could analyze author’s craft in more detail and use what they learned to develop their own essays. While students discussed the mentor text, Ms. Roberts listened in to their discussions and interacted with the students, gaining insights into how students were thinking about the author’s craft and offering teaching points along the way (Where are we now? Principle 1).

In the large group session, she had a further source of evidence of students’ thinking when she asked for ideas from their discussion and pressed them to cite the text to substantiate their points (Where are we now? Principle 2).

In the last part of the lesson, Ms. Roberts asked the students to review their own writing and think about what they needed to do, relative to the criteria they had co-constructed, to develop their essays further (Where to next? Principle 3). They made their own decisions and, as a result, Ms. Roberts had another source of evidence to provide her with insights about how students were developing their understanding and application of author’s craft (Principle 2 again). And because the students were clear about the goal and the criteria, they would be able to make an assessment of how well they had met the criteria, as well as being in a position to provide feedback to their peers about their work (Principle 3).

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