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.


Book Review: Elements of Grading

In a couple of weeks, I’ll be moderating an online discussion about assessment and grading, which has really got me excited.  While I think of myself as knowledgeable in this area, and others have praised my ability to speak about it, I can’t hold a candle to the way that some accomplished researchers and writers handle it.

Thanks to the good folks at Solution Tree, some of the foremost experts in the field of assessment will be joining us for the Voicethread conversation October 6-8.  First among these is Doug Reeves, whose work I have been reading for most of my professional life.  In fact, after reading Ken O’Connor’s “The Mindful School”, I immediately grabbed a copy of Reeves’ “Accountability for Learning” and devoured it.

While some of his work has been aimed at administrators and district leaders, Doug’s most recent book, “Elements of Grading: A Guide to Effective Practice” is a truly useful book for teachers.  He writes in a style that teachers can relate to, and he backs up everything with sound research and references.  Some of what you will find in this book is beyond the scope of what an individual teacher can do in her classroom, but most of the issues and questions that he discusses are within the wheelhouse of teachers and PLTs.

From the Introduction, Reeves describes a clear mission for what grades ought to be in the form of four “boundaries”:

  1. Grades must be accurate.
  2. Grades must be fair.
  3. Grades must be specific.
  4. Grades must be timely.

From there, Reeves lays out the importance of grading and the implications for discussions and changes to grading.  In the second chapter, which I read and re-read several times, he makes the case for how critical the current grading debate is and how it can be compared to changes in the medical profession over the last 60 years.  He suggests a simple exercise to help teachers assess their own philosophy on assessment:

“Ask your colleagues to complete the following sentence:  The differences between a student who earns A’s and B’s and the student who earns D’s and F’s are…

This really struck me as a powerful way to force each of us to think about how we look at students, and then discuss the similarities and differences within our school.

Aware of the burden that this type of change places on teachers, though, Reeves includes an entire chapter on ways that busy teachers can implement grading reform in their own classes.  He even addresses the issue of Special Education students and the concerns that teachers have about equitable grading for them.

Elements of Grading ends with advice for administrators about how to successfully conduct these conversations in their schools without alienating large parts of their faculty.  At 140 pages, this book is a quick read that is perfectly suitable for a PLT-based book study.  I strongly recommend it for those educators who want to examine their own grading practices and influence the views of others.  What do you think?


Join us for an Assessment Discussion in October

Long-time Scripted Spontaneity readers may remember that my relationship with education publisher Solution Tree has provided opportunities for us to discuss some of the most pressing educational issues of the day with some very knowledgeable people.

Well, a similar experience will be presenting itself in just a few weeks.  Solution Tree is bringing together some of the most amazing assessment experts in the world to have an online discussion with administrators, educators, and members of the public.  As you might guess, the opportunity to moderate a discussion about one of my favorite topics in education has me pretty psyched!  The conversation will be hosted on Voicethread, with this blog serving as the hub for news and instructions.

So, stay tuned for more information, including how you can get in on the discussion about how we measure what our students have learned.