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Formative Assessment & Standards-Based Grading

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Learn everything you need to know to implement an integrated system of assessment and grading. The author details the specific benefits of formative assessment and explains how to design and interpret three different types of formative assessments, how to track student progress, and how to assign meaningful grades. Detailed examples bring each concept to life, and chapter exercises reinforce the content.

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Introduction

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Formative Assessment and Standards-Based Grading is the second in a series of books collectively referred to as The Classroom Strategies Series. The purpose of this series is to provide teachers as well as building and district administrators with an in-depth treatment of research-based instructional strategies that can be used in the classroom to enhance student achievement. Many of the strategies addressed in this series have been covered in other works such as The Art and Science of Teaching: A Comprehensive Framework for Effective Instruction (Marzano, 2007), Classroom Assessment and Grading That Work (Marzano, 2006), and Classroom Instruction That Works (Marzano, Pickering, & Pollock, 2001). Although those works devoted a chapter or a part of a chapter to particular strategies, The Classroom Strategies Series devotes an entire book to an instructional strategy or set of related strategies.

Designing effective assessments is critical for any teacher. In order to make judgments about the status of a student or an entire class at any given point in time, teachers need as much accurate data as possible about an individual student's progress, or the progress of the class as a whole, to determine their next instructional steps. As straightforward as this might sound, designing assessments, using them purposefully, and incorporating them into a system of overall grading take insight and practice. Formative Assessment and Standards-Based Grading addresses the misconceptions about formative assessment and how it can be used in an overall grading scheme.

 

Chapter 1 - Research and Theory

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Assessment and grading are two of the most talked about and sometimes misunderstood aspects of K–12 education. Formative Assessment and Standards-Based Grading seeks to bring some clarity to one particular type of assessment—formative—and explore through recommendations how it interacts with traditional and nontraditional grading practices. In this chapter, we review the research and theory that underpin these recommendations. We begin by discussing feedback, the practice in which both assessment and grading have their roots.

Feedback

The topic of feedback and its effect on student achievement is of great interest to researchers and practitioners. In fact, studies on the relationship between the two are plentiful and span about three decades. In an effort to operationally define feedback, researchers John Hattie and Helen Timperley (2007) explained that its purpose is “to reduce discrepancies between current understandings and performance and a goal” (p. 86). Researcher Valerie Shute (2008) said feedback is “information communicated to the learner that is intended to modify his or her thinking or behavior for the purpose of improving learning” (p. 154).

 

Chapter 2 - The Anatomy of Formative Assessment

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The discussion in chapter 1 highlights both the interest in and the confusion about formative assessment and its use in K–12 classrooms. An obvious question one might ask is, Why the confusion? To answer this question, it is useful to understand some history about the term formative assessment. Initially, it was used in the field of evaluation. In an American Educational Research Association monograph series published in 1967, Michael Scriven pointed out the distinction between evaluating projects that were being formulated and evaluating those that had evolved to their final state. The former were referred to as formative evaluations and the latter were referred to as summative evaluations.

In the world of projects, the distinction between formative evaluation and summative evaluation makes perfect sense. Consider a project in which a new curriculum for elementary school mathematics is being developed. There is a clear beginning point at which the authors of the program start putting their ideas on paper. There are benchmarks along the way, such as completing a first draft, gathering feedback on that draft, and making revisions based on the feedback. Finally, there is a clear ending point when the new curriculum has been published and is being distributed to schools.

 

Chapter 3 - The Need for a New Scale

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As described in chapter 2, a defining characteristic of the process of formative assessment is that it uses formative scores to track student progress over time, leading to an estimate of a summative score. It makes intuitive sense that formative scores for a given topic would gradually increase over time—as students learn more about a topic, their scores go up. To illustrate, assume that formative scores are being collected for the topic of balancing equations in a middle school classroom. In the beginning, those formative scores would probably be relatively low, since many or most students have not had much experience solving algebraic equations of the form: 4 · x = 48. However, as time progresses, scores would likely improve. For example, on the first assessment, a student receives a score of 50. On the next assessment, the student receives a score of 60, and so on, until the final assessment of the unit produces a formative score of 74.

From this example, designing assessments that produce formative scores appears to be fairly straightforward. All a teacher has to do is design assessments, score them, and then keep track of students' scores during the time instruction is occurring. Unfortunately, there are some easy traps to fall into that can render the formative scores collected meaningless. One of the biggest traps is the improper use of the 100-point scale.

 

Chapter 4 - Designing Assessments

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We saw in chapter 2 that assessments come in three formats: obtrusive assessments, unobtrusive assessments, and student-generated assessments. This chapter addresses how to design assessments across this spectrum. Because of their complexity and the frequency with which they are used, obtrusive assessments will be addressed first and in more depth. We begin with selected-response items in obtrusive assessments.

Selected-Response Items in Obtrusive Assessments

Selected-response items are commonly used in obtrusive assessments. They are referred to as selected response because they require students to select an answer from among a set of options. Common types of selected-response items are multiple choice, matching, alternative choice, true/false, multiple response, and fill in the blank. We consider each very briefly. For a more detailed discussion of these formats, see Marzano (2006).

Multiple Choice

Multiple-choice items provide a series of answers (typically four answers) from which students are to select the correct one. Table 4.1 (page 60) contains sample multiple-choice items for mathematics, language arts, science, and social studies.

 

Chapter 5 - Tracking Student Progress

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In chapter 2, we saw that tracking student progress over time is one of the defining features of the process of formative assessment. This chapter describes four basic approaches to tracking student progress. Each has unique characteristics, and each has advantages and disadvantages. Whether a particular teacher uses one approach over the other is frequently a matter of style and philosophy. It is also a matter of the content that is being addressed. A teacher might use one approach within a particular unit because it lends itself to the content of that unit; he or she might use a different approach in another unit for the same reason.

Approach 1: Summative Score Assigned at the End of the Grading Period

One approach to tracking student progress begins with designing assessments that include all levels of the assessment scale from the very beginning. For example, a mathematics teacher working on a unit about proportions designs and administers assessments that contain items for score values 2.0, 3.0, and 4.0 from the scale regarding proportion. Right from the first assessment, students can obtain scores that represent the full range on the scale—on the first assessment, students can receive scores as low as 0.0 and as high as 4.0. Of course, at the beginning of a unit, many students will probably not be able to answer items at score 3.0 and 4.0 values because this content has not yet been taught. However, a number of students might be able to answer items at score value 2.0 because those items contain content that is part of the students' general background knowledge.

 

Chapter 6 - Grading and Reporting

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Ultimately, a teacher using the formative approach to assessment described in this book must address the issue of grades. In a later section of this chapter, we consider how a school or district might change its report card to accommodate a formatively based system. We begin, however, from the perspective of a teacher who must turn in an overall grade for each quarter, trimester, or semester in a school or district that utilizes traditional grades.

The Overall Grade

A teacher using any one of the four approaches described in chapter 5 can still translate student achievement into a traditional overall grade. Before addressing the issue of grading, though, it is necessary to revisit the issue of averaging. In chapter 2, a strong case was made that formative scores for a particular learning goal should not be averaged to construct a summative score. This, of course, is perfectly accurate, since averaging scores for a particular learning goal does not take into account that learning has occurred from one assessment to another. However, averaging is a viable option when performance across learning goals is being aggregated. For example, assume that a particular student has received the following summative scores for six learning goals addressed during the grading period: 2.5, 3.0, 2.0, 4.0, 3.0, and 3.5. The numeric average of 3.0 would be a good summary score representing typical final status for the student across the six learning goals.

 

Epilogue

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This book has been about radical change in the practice of classroom assessment and grading—two areas that are at the core of K–12 schooling in the United States. Classroom assessment must be executed in a formative manner if it is to be used as a tool to enhance student achievement. Grades must be based on a formative approach to classroom assessment so that they can reflect student status at the end of a grading period and not penalize students for initial misunderstandings or “slow starts” regarding specific topics. Ultimately, though, the entire K–12 system must change to allow students to progress at their own pace regarding subject-matter content.

While this book was written for individual classroom teachers working in traditional schools, it can be used to stimulate radical change at the school and district levels. Specifically, if individual teachers demonstrate the power of the techniques outlined in this book, other teachers will emulate their behavior. It will be a relatively small step for the administrators of an entire school or district to make a similar transformation once there is a critical mass of teachers who have transformed their classrooms.

 

Appendix A - Answers to Exercises

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Answers to Exercise 2.1
Obtrusive, Unobtrusive, and Student-Generated Assessments

1. Mona is very close to receiving an A on the content that has been covered in her art class this quarter. She approaches the teacher and proposes that she will provide a sketch that shows she has mastered the techniques presented during the quarter.

Mona is employing student-generated assessment in this scenario. She has designed an assessment that will demonstrate her mastery of the content.

2. After teaching the concept of a thesis statement, discussing examples of successful thesis statements, and providing the students with opportunities for practice, Mr. Grace gives his students a topic and asks them to write a corresponding thesis statement. He scores the effectiveness of the thesis statements using a rubric and records the scores for each student.

Obtrusive assessment is being employed in this scenario. Mr. Grace has provided his students with instruction and practice, and he is now directly administering an assessment for which he will record a score for each student.

 

Appendix B - What is an Effect Size?

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Reports on educational research use terms such as meta-analysis and effect size (ES). While these terms are without doubt useful to researchers, they can be confusing and even frustrating for the practitioner. So what does meta-analysis mean exactly? What is an ES? A meta-analysis is a summary, or synthesis, of relevant research findings. It looks at all of the individual studies done on a particular topic and summarizes them. This is helpful to educators in that a meta-analysis provides more and stronger support than does a single analysis (meta-analysis is literally an analysis of analyses).

An average ES tells us about the results across all of the individual studies examined. For example, let us say the purpose of the meta-analysis is to examine multiple studies regarding the effect of formative assessment on student achievement (that is, the effect of X on Y). An average ES reports the results of all of the included studies to tell us whether or not formative assessment improves student achievement and, if so, by how much.

 



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