Archive for July, 2013

Alignment

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The term alignment is widely used by educators in a variety of contexts, most commonly in reference to reforms that are intended to bring greater coherence or efficiency to a curriculum, program, initiative, or education system.

When the term is used in educational contexts without qualification, specific examples, or additional explanation, it may be difficult to determine precisely what alignment is referring to. In some cases, the term may have a very specific, technical meaning, but in others it may be vague, undecipherable jargon. Generally speaking, the use of alignment tends to become less precise and meaningful when its object grows in size, scope, or ambition. For example, when teachers talk about “aligning curriculum,” they are likely referring to a specific, technical process being used to develop lessons, deliver instruction, and evaluate student learning growth and achievement. On the other hand, some education reports, improvement plans, and policy proposals may refer to the “alignment” of various elements of an education system without describing precisely what might be entailed in the proposed alignment process. And, of course, some “alignments” may be practical, thoughtful strategies that produce tangible improvements in schools and student learning, while others may be unspecific “action items” that never get acted on, or they may be strategies that show promise in theory, but that turn out to be overly complex and burdensome when executed in states, districts, and schools.

The following are a few representative examples of how the term is used in reference to education reforms:

  • Policy: Educators, reformers, policy makers, and elected officials may call for the “alignment of policy and practice.” For example, federal or state laws, regulations, and rules may not be enacted in districts or schools, or educators may not follow policies established by school boards and districts. Or enacted laws and regulations may contradict one another, leaving school leaders and teachers wondering which laws and rules they should follow. In addition, the interpretation and implementation of a given education policy in schools may diverge significantly from the guidance and objectives of a policy, which may then require modifications to—or the alignment of—the policy language and resulting “practices” used by educators. Generally speaking, the alignment of policy usually entails a process of refinement, iteration, clarification, and communication during the development, and following the adoption, of a new policy or set of policies.
  • Strategy: School leaders may work to “align” the organization and operation of a district or school, including how students are taught, with a given school-improvement plan, reform strategy, or educational model. In this case, the alignment process might entail a wide variety of reforms—from reallocating budgetary expenditures to restructuring school schedules to redesigning courses and lessons—in ways that are intended to achieve the objectives of the improvement plan, while also ensuring that its parts are working together coherently and effectively. For a related discussion, see action plan.
  • Learning Standards: Educators may work to “align” what and how they teach with a given set of learning standards, such as the Common Core State Standards or the subject-area standards developed by states and national organizations. In this case, modifications may be made to lessons, course designs, academic programs, and instructional techniques so that the concepts and skills described in the standards are taught to students at certain times, in certain sequences, or in certain ways. For related discussions, see learning progression and proficiency-based learning.
  • Assessment: Teachers may “align” assessments, standards, lessons, and instruction so that the assessments evaluate the material they are teaching in a unit or course. Test-development companies also “align” standardized tests to a state’s learning standards so that test questions and tasks address the specific concepts and skills described in the standards for a certain subject area and grade level. In individual cases, teachers may align assessments and lessons more or less precisely, but developers of large-scale standardized tests utilize sophisticated psychometric strategies intended to improve the validity and accuracy of the assessment results (although this is a source of ongoing debate). For a related discussion, see measurement error.
  • Curriculum: Educators may “align” curriculum in different ways, but perhaps the most common forms are (1) aligning curriculum—the knowledge, skills, topics, and concepts that are taught to students, and the lessons, units, assignments, readings, and materials used in the teaching process—with specific learning standards, and (2) aligning various curricula within a school, such as the curriculum for a particular course, with other curricula in the school to improve overall coherence and effectiveness. In the second case, for example, educators may align curricula by making sure that courses follow a logical learning sequence, within and across subject areas and grade levels, so that new concepts build on previously taught concepts. For a more detailed discussion, see coherent curriculum.
  • Professional Development: School leaders, educational experts, reform organizations, and government agencies may “align” professional development—such as training sessions, workshops, conferences, and resources—with the objectives of specific policies, improvement plans, or educational models. For example, state education agencies may provide training sessions for superintendents and principals to help them implement new teacher-evaluation requirements, or districts and schools may contract with experts and outside organizations to help their faculties learn new educational approaches or teaching techniques.

Interim Assessment

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An interim assessment is a form of assessment that educators use to (1) evaluate where students are in their learning progress and (2) determine whether they are on track to performing well on future assessments, such as standardized tests or end-of-course exams. Interim assessments are usually administered periodically during a course or school year (for example, every six or eight weeks) and separately from the process of instructing students. (In education, the term assessment refers to the wide variety of methods that educators use to evaluate, measure, and document the academic readiness, learning progress, and skill acquisition of students.)

Defining interim assessment is complicated by the fact that educators use a variety of terms for these forms of assessment—such as benchmark assessment or predictive assessment—and the terms may or may not be used synonymously. It should also be noted that there is often confusion and debate about the distinctions between formative assessments and interim assessments, and educators may define the terms differently from school to school or state to state.

Generally speaking, interim assessments fall between formative assessment and summative assessment, and understanding their intended purpose requires an understanding of the basic distinctions between these two assessment strategies.

Formative Assessment vs. Summative Assessment
Formative assessments are used collect detailed information that educators can use to improve instructional techniques and student learning while it’s happening. Summative assessments, on the other hand, are used to evaluate learning progress and achievement at the conclusion of a specific instructional period—usually at the end of a project, unit, course, semester, program, or school year. In other words, formative assessments are for learning, while summative assessments are of learning. Or as assessment expert Paul Black put it, “When the cook tastes the soup, that’s formative assessment. When the customer tastes the soup, that’s summative assessment.” It should be noted, however, that the distinction between formative and summative is often fuzzy in practice, and educators may hold divergent interpretations of and opinions on the subject.

Like formative assessments, teachers may use interim assessments to identify concepts that students are struggling to understand, skills they are having difficulty mastering, or learning standards they have not yet achieved so that adjustments can be made to lessons, instructional techniques, and academic support. But unlike formative assessments, interim assessments—depending on how they are designed and used—may allow for the comparison of student results across courses, schools, or states, and they may be used by school, district, and state leaders to track the academic progress of certain student populations. The distinction here is between assessments that are used on a daily basis by individual teachers during the instructional process (formative assessments), and either standardized or “common” assessments that are used by multiple teachers, schools, districts, or states, which allow students results to be compared.

While there is no official definition for interim assessment, and it may be defined differently from place to place, the following examples will serve to illustrate two common types of assessment likely to be considered interim assessments:

  • A preliminary test developed by a company, organization, or consortium—such as the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium—that is intended to evaluate how well students are prepared for a standardized test that will be administered on a future date. In this case, results from the interim assessment would be used by school leaders and teachers to better prepare students for the future test.
  • A common literacy assessment or rubric that teachers develop to evaluate student learning progress in relation to expected reading standards. In this case, the assessment would be used by multiple teachers in a school or district, and it would be used in advance of a summative literacy assessment. What is “common” in this example is both the assessment being used and the reading standards it is based on. Results from the interim assessment would be used to better prepare students for future assessments.

 

Summative Assessment

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Summative assessments are used to evaluate student learning, skill acquisition, and academic achievement at the conclusion of a defined instructional period—typically at the end of a project, unit, course, semester, program, or school year. Generally speaking, summative assessments are defined by three major criteria:

  • The tests, assignments, or projects are used to determine whether students have learned what they were expected to learn. In other words, what makes an assessment “summative” is not the design of the test, assignment, or self-evaluation, per se, but the way it is used—i.e., to determine whether and to what degree students have learned the material they have been taught.
  • Summative assessments are given at the conclusion of a specific instructional period, and therefore they are generally evaluative, rather than diagnostic—i.e., they are more appropriately used to determine learning progress and achievement, evaluate the effectiveness of educational programs, measure progress toward improvement goals, or make course-placement decisions, among other possible applications.
  • Summative-assessment results are often recorded as scores or grades that are then factored into a student’s permanent academic record, whether they end up as letter grades on a report card or test scores used in the college-admissions process. While summative assessments are typically a major component of the grading process in most districts, schools, and courses, not all assessments considered to be summative are graded.

 

Summative assessments are commonly contrasted with formative assessments, which collect detailed information that educators can use to improve instruction and student learning while it’s happening. In other words, formative assessments are often said to be for learning, while summative assessments are of learning. Or as assessment expert Paul Black put it, “When the cook tastes the soup, that’s formative assessment. When the customer tastes the soup, that’s summative assessment.” It should be noted, however, that the distinction between formative and summative is often fuzzy in practice, and educators may have divergent interpretations and opinions on the subject.

Some of the most well-known and widely discussed examples of summative assessments are the standardized tests administered by states and testing organizations, usually in math, reading, writing, and science. Other examples of summative assessments include:

  • End-of-unit or chapter tests.
  • End-of-term or semester tests.
  • Standardized tests that are used to for the purposes of school accountability, college admissions (e.g., the SAT or ACT), or end-of-course evaluation (e.g., Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate exams).
  • Culminating demonstrations of learning or other forms of “performance assessment,” such as portfolios of student work that are collected over time and evaluated by teachers or capstone projects that students work on over extended periods of time and that they present and defend at the conclusion of a school year or their high school education.

While most summative assessments are given at the conclusion of an instructional period, some summative assessments can still be used diagnostically. For example, the growing availability of student data, made possible by online grading systems and databases, can give teachers access to assessment results from previous years or other courses. By reviewing this data, teachers may be able to identify students more likely to struggle academically in certain subject areas or with certain concepts. In addition, students may be allowed to take some summative tests multiple times, and teachers might use the results to help prepare students for future administrations of the test.

It should also be noted that districts and schools may use “interim” or “benchmark” tests to monitor the academic progress of students and determine whether they are on track to mastering the material that will be evaluated on end-of-course tests or standardized tests. Some educators consider interim tests to be formative, since they are often used diagnostically to inform instructional modifications, but others may consider them to be summative. There is ongoing debate in the education community about this distinction, and interim assessments may defined differently from place to place. See formative assessment for a more detailed discussion.

Reform

While educators have arguably been using “summative assessments” in various forms since the invention of schools and teaching, summative assessments have in recent decades become components of larger school-improvement efforts. As they always have, summative assessments can help teachers determine whether students are making adequate academic progress or meeting expected learning standards, and results may be used to inform modifications to instructional techniques, lesson designs, or teaching materials the next time a course, unit, or lesson is taught. Yet perhaps the biggest changes in the use of summative assessments have resulted from state and federal policies aimed at improving public education—specifically, standardized high-stakes tests used to make important decisions about schools, teachers, and students.

Debate

While there is little disagreement among educators about the need for or utility of summative assessments, debates and disagreements tend to center on issues of fairness and effectiveness, especially when summative-assessment results are used for high-stakes purposes. In these cases, educators, experts, reformers, policy makers, and others may debate whether assessments are being designed and used appropriately, or whether high-stakes tests are either beneficial or harmful to the educational process. For more detailed discussions of these issues, see high-stakes test, measurement error, test accommodations, test bias, score inflation, standardized test, and value-added measures.

 

Formative Assessment

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Formative assessment refers to a wide variety of methods that teachers use to conduct in-process evaluations of student comprehension, learning needs, and academic progress during a lesson, unit, or course. Formative assessments help teachers identify concepts that students are struggling to understand, skills they are having difficulty acquiring, or learning standards they have not yet achieved so that adjustments can be made to lessons, instructional techniques, and academic support.

The general goal of formative assessment is to collect detailed information that can be used to improve instruction and student learning while it’s happening. What makes an assessment “formative” is not the design of a test, technique, or self-evaluation, per se, but the way it is used—i.e., to inform in-process teaching and learning modifications.

Formative assessments are commonly contrasted with summative assessments, which are used to evaluate student learning progress and achievement at the conclusion of a specific instructional period—usually at the end of a project, unit, course, semester, program, or school year. In other words, formative assessments are for learning, while summative assessments are of learning. Or as assessment expert Paul Black put it, “When the cook tastes the soup, that’s formative assessment. When the customer tastes the soup, that’s summative assessment.” It should be noted, however, that the distinction between formative and summative is often fuzzy in practice, and educators may hold divergent interpretations of and opinions on the subject.

Many educators and experts believe that formative assessment is an integral part of effective teaching. In contrast with most summative assessments, which are deliberately set apart from instruction, formative assessments are integrated into the teaching and learning process. For example, a formative-assessment technique could be as simple as a teacher asking students to raise their hands if they feel they have understood a newly introduced concept, or it could be as sophisticated as having students complete a self-assessment of their own writing (typically using a rubric outlining the criteria) that the teacher then reviews and comments on. While formative assessments help teachers identify learning needs and problems, in many cases the assessments also help students develop a stronger understanding of their own academic strengths and weaknesses. When students know what they do well and what they need to work harder on, it can help them take greater responsibility over their own learning and academic progress.

While the same assessment technique or process could, in theory, be used for either formative or summative purposes, many summative assessments are unsuitable for formative purposes because they do not provide useful feedback. For example, standardized-test scores may not be available to teachers for months after their students take the test (so the results cannot be used to modify lessons or teaching and better prepare students), or the assessments may not be specific or fine-grained enough to give teachers and students the detailed information they need to improve.

The following are a few representative examples of formative assessments:

  • Questions that teachers pose to individual students and groups of students during the learning process to determine what specific concepts or skills they may be having trouble with. A wide variety of intentional questioning strategies may be employed, such as phrasing questions in specific ways to elicit more useful responses.
  • Specific, detailed, and constructive feedback that teachers provide on student work, such as journal entries, essays, worksheets, research papers, projects, ungraded quizzes, lab results, or works of art, design, and performance. The feedback may be used to revise or improve a work product, for example.
  • “Exit slips” or “exit tickets” that quickly collect student responses to a teacher’s questions at the end of a lesson or class period. Based on what the responses indicate, the teacher can then modify the next lesson to address concepts that students have failed to comprehend or skills they may be struggling with. “Admit slips” are a similar strategy used at the beginning of a class or lesson to determine what students have retained from previous learning experiences.
  • Self-assessments that ask students to think about their own learning process, to reflect on what they do well or struggle with, and to articulate what they have learned or still need to learn to meet course expectations or learning standards.
  • Peer assessments that allow students to use one another as learning resources. For example, “workshopping” a piece of writing with classmates is one common form of peer assessment, particularly if students follow a rubric or guidelines provided by a teacher.

In addition to the reasons addressed above, educators may also use formative assessment to:

  • Refocus students on the learning process and its intrinsic value, rather than on grades or extrinsic rewards.
  • Encourage students to build on their strengths rather than fixate or dwell on their deficits. (For a related discussion, see growth mindset.)
  • Help students become more aware of their learning needs, strengths, and interests so they can take greater responsibility over their own educational growth. For example, students may learn how to self-assess their own progress and self-regulate their behaviors.
  • Give students more detailed, precise, and useful information. Because grades and test scores only provide a general impression of academic achievement, usually at the completion of an instructional period, formative feedback can help to clarify and calibrate learning expectations for both students and parents. Students gain a clearer understanding of what is expected of them, and parents have more detailed information they can use to more effectively support their child’s education.
  • Raise or accelerate the educational achievement of all students, while also reducing learning gaps and achievement gaps.

Reform

While the formative-assessment concept has only existed since the 1960s, educators have arguably been using “formative assessments” in various forms since the invention of teaching. As an intentional school-improvement strategy, however, formative assessment has received growing attention from educators and researchers in recent decades. In fact, it is now widely considered to be one of the more effective instructional strategies used by teachers, and there is a growing body of literature and academic research on the topic.

Schools are now more likely to encourage or require teachers to use formative-assessment strategies in the classroom, and there are a growing number of professional-development opportunities available to educators on the subject. Formative assessments are also integral components of personalized learning and other educational strategies designed to tailor lessons and instruction to the distinct learning needs and interests of individual students.

Debate

While there is relatively little disagreement in the education community about the utility of formative assessment, debates or disagreements may stem from differing interpretations of the term. For example, some educators believe the term is loosely applied to forms of assessment that are not “truly” formative, while others believe that formative assessment is rarely used appropriately or effectively in the classroom.

Another common debate is whether formative assessments can or should be graded. Many educators contend that formative assessments can only be considered truly formative when they are ungraded and used exclusively to improve student learning. If grades are assigned to a quiz, test, project, or other work product, the reasoning goes, they become de facto summative assessments—i.e., the act of assigning a grade turns the assessment into a performance evaluation that is documented in a student’s academic record, as opposed to a diagnostic strategy used to improve student understanding and preparation before they are given a graded test or assignment.

Some educators also make a distinction between “pure” formative assessments—those that are used on a daily basis by teachers while they are instructing students—and “interim” or “benchmark” assessments, which are typically periodic or quarterly assessments used to determine where students are in their learning progress or whether they are on track to meeting expected learning standards. While some educators may argue that any assessment method that is used diagnostically could be considered formative, including interim assessments, others contend that these two forms of assessment should remain distinct, given that different strategies, techniques, and professional development may be required.

Some proponents of formative assessment also suspect that testing companies mislabel and market some interim standardized tests as “formative” to capitalize on and profit from the popularity of the idea. Some observers express skepticism that commercial or prepackaged products can be authentically formative, arguing that formative assessment is a sophisticated instructional technique, and to do it well requires both a first-hand understanding of the students being assessed and sufficient training and professional development.