Will Real Formative Assessment Please Stand Up?

As Eduflack has previously noted, the issues of accountability and assessment have risen to the top of the education reform heap.  Thanks to the Aspen Institute and others, we seem to have consensus — at least with education and business leaders — that accountability should lead the day.  And to get there, we need strong, reliable, replicable assessments that effectively measure the effectiveness of our programs, our schools, and out students.

Earlier this month, Scott Cech did a piece in Education Week reflecting on internal disagreements within the testing industry on the issue of “formative assessments.”  (http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2008/09/17/04formative_ep.h28.html)   The piece is an interesting one, particularly in light of recent focus by major school districts on Response to Intervention, or RTI.  Like issues before it, education companies throughout the nation see RTI as a pending blank check, a major money-making program for those who can sell an answer to the problem.
While Cech’s piece raises some good questions on the issue of assessment and the role of both corporations and teachers in implementing meaningful assessment measures in the classroom, the piece — and the questions it raises — is being used by some to celebrate the end of accountability and is, unfortunately, being used to trumpet the demise of modern-day assessment models.
Because of issues like RTI, we have seen some very strong formative assessment models developed.  Just take a look at the investments made by organizations such as Wireless Generation, and you can see what high-quality, high-value assessment models can look like.  Focusing on pre- and post-assessment tools, educators gain the mechanisms they need to effectively evaluate student progress and determine the additional interventions needed to get every student succeeding.
Like most areas in education reform, there are good assessments and there are bad assessments.  There are research-based assessments, and there are squishy assessments.  There are assessments that work, and those that simply don’t.  The job of a good educator or a good policymaker is to learn the difference, and make sure we are using what works in our own schools and our own classrooms.
Those that celebrate articles like these as the “end of assessments” do so for one of two reasons.  Either they don’t truly understand what formative assessments are or they don’t have the research to prove that their models work.  
Cech is right.  This is an issue that many educators simply do not understand.  Nor is an issue that should be the exclusive playground of vendors or for-profit industry.  If we are going to hold our schools and our policymakers accountable for results in the classroom, we need to ensure that they have effective assessment tools AND understand how to use them appropriately.  We need to empower teachers to measure their students’ progress, and do so in a way that aligns with state and, hopefully, national learning standards.  And we need to simplify the assessment process so the average parent, the average teacher, and the average community member gets it.
Understanding meaningful assessment of student achievement should not require advanced degrees nor should it demand a multi-step, multi-part process that looks more like Swedish furniture assembly instructions than a benchmark of student progress.  There are simple, effective assessments out there.  We just need to redouble our efforts to get them out into the classroom.

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