Keeping Formative Assessment Formative

One of the biggest problems that I have when it comes to formative assessment is ensuring that my students receive meaningful feedback AND that they act on it.  I think that I do a pretty good job of assessing my students regularly, and I capture these data in my gradebook (without affecting their average).  But, I’ve been forced to admit lately that I’m not very effective at giving students information that can help them learn more/better.





As Bill Ferriter recently wrote (and quoted from Dylan Wiliam), feedback needs to be work for the student.  If the information that I provide to students doesn’t ask/require/beg them to change, it isn’t really formative assessment.  I’ve owned a copy of Wiliam’s book “Embedded Formative Assessment” for some time, but I don’t think that I’ve ever really recognized the thread about student effort.  I’ve decided to read through this practical (and short) guide again with an eye for ways to make my formative feedback more impactful.  Stay tuned for updates on how this process is going…


Assessment Voicethread: Wrap-up

After three days of intense, informed discussion with experts, administrators, and teachers I’m still reeling with excitement from all of the ideas flying around in my head.

First, the authors who joined us really brought their expertise and shared it well.  Kim Bailey and Chris Jakicic made me pine for a copy of their soon-to-be released book with the tips and advice that they shared about Common Formative Assessments.  I plan to bring some of their ideas to my Professional Learning Team this week.  For me, the highlight was when Chris shared this nugget:

“Kim and I suggest that teams try to keep their common formative assessments short and frequent. We suggest 20 minutes or less for the assessment and weekly to every three weeks in terms of frequency. Assess only the high leverage learning targets from the essential standards.  When teams focus their assessments in this way, they are able to make their corrective instruction much more focused and effective.”

Wow, huh?  My team focuses so much on fitting a quarter’s worth of content onto one multiple-choice assessment that we never considered how much more effective smaller, more frequent formative assessments can be (not to mention, easier for a teacher to provide feedback).

In another discussion thread, that included lots of authors and educators alike, the subject of motivating students and assessment retakes was tackled.  Tons of great ideas were offered up, some more practical than others due to their reliance on school-wide infrastructure.  District administrator, Matt, said it best, I think:

“Fatigue will quickly set in as teachers spend every waking moment before/after school helping students.  It needs to be a collective effort at the building level.”

There were many more of these memorable moments in the Voicethread conversation.  I loved when Erica, a middle school ELA teacher, expressed her minor epiphany at the idea of assessment as a form of coaching for procedural skills like math and writing.  I enjoyed hearing Dylan William describe the importance of “decision-based data collection” that determines the type of data to collect after you know what you need it for.

While the number of actively commenting folks on this Voicethread was pretty high, it is also encouraging to know that the Voicethread was viewed over 100 times.  That’s a lot of future commenters.

Commenting is now closed on this conversation, but keep in mind that it will remain available to view on the Voicethread site for a long time.  I know that I will return to it when I need a refresher on where my own assessment strategies should be going.

What was your favorite moment?


Assessment Voicethread: Day Two

In the words of one Voicethread contributor, “Holy buckets!”.  Today has been a fantastic chance to learn with us about Formative Assessment and Grading.  The various voices who have been participating were joined by new ones and the resulting conversation was spirited and informative.  I found myself at time nodding along, and at other times reaching for the right words to respond.  This is why I love the opportunity to interact with so many bright minds on such a relevant issue.

If you haven’t had a chance to check in today, here are few of the high points:

Experts and veteran educators alike have chimed in about the issue of test retakes and multiple opportunities to show mastery.  Commentor Jason writes,

“Why should [struggling] students persist if they’ve been taught that a test happens and then the class moves on.”

This is a powerful statement that is really at the heart of why it’s so important to reach out to the low-performing students in your class and show them pride of personal achievement.

On another slide about the qualities of true feedback, Dylan Williams says,

“Feedback should be more work for the recipient than the donor.”

This is a simple, yet important idea that I myself have missed for some time.  I spend countless hours trying to craft just the right response to a student’s assessment submission only to watch the student toss his paper in the trash.  We need to implement teaching and assessment practices that value our time while provided meaningful opportunities for reflection and thinking for our students.


The conversation is far from over!  Come by the Voicethread and share your views on these and several other topics related to grading and assessment.  I promise you won’t regret the effort.


Assessment Voicethread: Day One

Today, the Voicethread conversation that I am moderating about Formative Assessment and Grading began with a bang.  Several Solution Tree authors, including Kim Bailey and Chris Jakicic (who have a new book on Common Formative Assessments hitting bookshelves this month), have chimed in with their insights.  Lots of educators are looking in, and quite a few are sharing their perspectives and questions.

One thread that is emerging is the conflict between the assessment educators know will benefit learning and the time it takes for this kind of feedback to be generated.  District curriculum specialist (and former math teacher) Matt says,

“When you have 120 kids, what does that feedback look like?  What does that thinking look like?”

What a great question, huh?  How can we provide effective, personalized feedback to large numbers of students?

Elsewhere, English-Language Arts teacher Erica describes the success that her PLC has had planning efficient writing instruction by “beginning with the end in mind”.

There are lots more interesting topics just starting to emerge on the various slides in the Voicethread conversation.  So, stop by before it ends–on Saturday night–and join the discussion!


Let’s Talk and Learn!

The suspense is finally over!  Our three-day Voicethread conversation with authors, experts, and the public about Formative Assessment and Grading has begun.  Here is what you need to know to participate:

Keep in mind that you can stop by and learn whenever it’s convenient for you, but be sure to set aside a few minutes because you’re likely to get hooked on what you read and hear.  And don’t forget to come back by later and see how other have responded to your comments.  Keep the conversation going.

I’ll see you back here later today for a summary of the interesting bits from the first day of the discussion.






Voicethread Tips for our Upcoming Conversation

As anyone who visits this blog from time to time is probably aware, I will be moderating an asynchronous discussion about grading and assessment later this week. The conversation will include several noted authors, including Tom Guskey, Doug Reeves, Kim Bailey, Dylan Wiliam, and Chris Jakicic. We will be using one of the most phenomenal digital learning tools that I have ever come across: Voicethread.

For those new to Voicethread, here are a few tips:

Voicethread is one of the easiest—and most engaging—digital forums for discussions available to educators today. It’s a tool that my students have embraced completely and that I’ve used to participate in conversations with other teachers and experts on Web 2.0, Professional Learning Communities, and 21st Century Skills.

Our conversation entitled “Formative Assessment and Grading: Creating a System of Quality Feedback for Improved Student Learning” will begin on October 6 and end on October 8.

During that time, the authors will be stopping by our Voicethread a few times a day to lend their advice and to answer your questions about the challenges of collecting data, analyzing it, and using it to improve our practice–but the real value in our conversation comes from the collective wisdom of all of our participants! My hope is that we’ll wrestle with challenging topics together for three days—-answering and asking questions, pushing back against controversial ideas, and letting our own preconceived notions be challenged.

The cool part about Voicethread is that there are no set times for participating in our conversation. Far from a full three days of constant interaction, Voicethread conversations allow users to choose when they’d like to stop by and learn.

That means you can stop by as your schedule allows–before school, after changing the baby’s diaper, just before bed–to read comments from other participants and to share your wisdom with the digital peers that join together to reflect on assessment.

It should be a great example of what collaborative dialogue between accomplished teachers can look like–and it should bring out some ideas and issues that affect the future of everyone in education.

To be best prepared to use Voicethread during our conversation, consider:

  1. Creating a free educator account by visiting
  2. Viewing this Voicethread tutorial, which will show you how to add comments to a conversation.
  3. Viewing this Voicethread tutorial, which will introduce you to the idea of Voicethread identities.

You can also practice by adding a comment to one of the following professional development Voicethreads. Some are created by Bill Ferriter and others by me:

You might also be interested in these “digital conversation suggestions” that Bill uses to introduce to teachers and students whenever they tackle new tools:

While commenting, try to respond directly to other readers. Begin by quoting some part of the comment that you are responding to help other listeners know what it is that has caught your attention. Then, explain your own thinking in a few short sentences. Elaboration is important when you’re trying to make a point. Finally, finish your comment with a question that other listeners can reply to.

Questions help to keep digital conversations going!

When responding to another participant, don’t be afraid to disagree with something that they have said. Challenging the thinking of someone else will help them to reconsider their own thinking—and will force you to explain yours! Just be sure to disagree agreeably—impolite people are rarely influential.

If your thinking gets challenged by another participant in a conversation, don’t be offended. Listen to your peers, consider their positions and decide whether or not you agree with them. You might discover that they’ve got good ideas you hadn’t thought about. Either way, be sure to respond—let your challengers know how their ideas have influenced you.

Finally, know that you can always leave questions for me in the comment section of this entry. I’m really excited about our upcoming conversation and want to make sure that everyone feels comfortable with the tool that we’ll be using to interact with one another.


Book Review: Embedded Formative Assessment

The upcoming Voicethread conversation that I’ll be moderating will explore the issues related to assessment and grading, with some special emphasis on formative assessment.  In preparation for this event–which you are all strongly encouraged to join–I have been reading some of the new books by several of the authors who will be part of the discussion.  A few days ago, I reviewed Doug Reeves’ Elements of Grading, and now I want to introduce you to a very different short book about assessment.

Dylan Wiliam’s new book “Embedded Formative Assessment” focuses on two fundamental ideas: why is student achievement important and how can we use formative assessment in everything we do.

If I can make one criticism of the book, it’s that it focuses a bit too much on what school leaders need to do and less on what teachers can accomplish.  Then again, this might be one of my weaknesses as a teacher leader: I get frustrated with looking at the big picture yet not being able to make real change in my classroom.

I like that Wiliam describes more than fifty different techniques, yet pulls them all together in Chapter 2.  This well-reasoned section deals with the argument supporting the importance of formative assessment, as well as the fundamental issue of how we define the term.  I especially like the emphasis that he puts on the role that formative assessment plays in informing students about their own academic progress.  I think that this is a goal of formative assessment that is lacking in many instances, including my own instructional practices.

At its core, Embedded Formative Assessment really focuses on the five key strategies that Wiliam presents as the function of formative assessment:

  1. Communicating learning outcomes (the author prefers “intentions”) and expectations
  2. Choosing the best instructional strategies
  3. Providing opportunities for feedback
  4. Engaging students in the role of peer instructor
  5. Providing opportunities for student ownership of their learning

For me, the most striking aspect of this new book is the strong case that Dylan Wiliam makes for teachers integrating formative assessment into our daily lessons, and the importance of teaching students to take responsibility for their own learning.  These are the two lessons that I think we all need to learn, and this book does a great job of convincing teachers.

How do you use formative assessment on a regular basis?


Don’t forget to join us here at Scripted Spontaneity on October 6 for a chance to interact with Dylan Wiliam and several other assessment gurus on our latest Voicethread conversation.