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School of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison

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Professional Development in Classroom Assessment
Professional Development in Classroom Assessment

Fundamental changes in teachers’ instruction can result from showing them the value of conducting formative assessments. Formative assessment occurs when teachers give students immediate, contextualized feedback during the learning process, so that they can learn better. It is diagnostic and can be informal. Summative assessment, on the other hand, usually occurs at the end of a course. Most standardized tests are summative.

Formative assessment is almost nonexistent in U.S. classrooms, but it has been shown to help teachers with instructional decision making, interpreting students’ written and verbal responses, and eliciting or responding to student ideas during the course of instruction. WCER researchers are developing and testing a program of professional development that seeks to bring about these changes.

Although standardized tests measure end-result student achievement; they do not measure formative gains or strength of reasoning, says UW-Madison Education Professor Thomas A. Romberg, a codirector of this study.

“Standardized tests are valid in a limited way, generally measuring students’ rote retention of formulae or superficial understanding of number, algebra, or geometry,” Romberg says. As such, they do not measure students’ depth of reasoning or potential achievement. Neither can they effectively be used to inform day-to-day instruction or to assess the immediate or short-term needs of the class as a whole or of the individual student.

Consequently, Romberg and colleagues from the Freudenthal Institute, The Netherlands, advocate and provide professional development in formative classroom assessment. Participating teachers receive on-site, classroom- and teacher-specific support from the staff developers, lead teachers, and researchers.

How students benefit

Formative assessments help students learn with understanding critical concepts in mathematics, says Jan deLange, a longtime collaborator with Romberg and director of The Freudenthal Institute. deLange has found that classroom teachers initially have limited understanding of reform assessment practices. But when teachers used formative assessment as part of a professional development program, their students’ achievement improved. In the process of professional development workshops, teachers

  • learn how to judge the quality of existing assessment instruments and to select instruments appropriate for their instructional goals,
  • reflect on the goals and nature of formative assessment in light of desired student learning outcomes,
  • work in detail on ‘scoring’ tasks, and
  • examine how assessment task items are constructed to reflect hypothetical learning and assessment trajectories.

“We found that teachers’ overall instructional practice became more flexible,” says Romberg,  “both to the class as a whole and to the individual student, in addition to being more sensitive to students’ understanding of mathematics. An increased attention to student learning, explicit expectations of student performance, and stronger individual and group feedback helped students progress from informal to formal reasoning in mathematical domains. Using formative evaluation tools gives teachers an early impression of student misconceptions and provides more time for teachers to adjust their instructional plans.

“Twenty years of developmental research suggests that it is unrealistic to expect teachers to become instant assessment designers and experts,” deLange says. “But classroom assessment can serve as a basis for reorienting teacher practice so that it is flexible and more sensitive to students’ understanding of mathematics.”

Formative assessment activities are often most effective when they permit teacher-student interaction and probing of responses. This interactive approach enables the teacher to assess individual students’ informal or formal knowledge and to repeat important topics when needed. Although basic knowledge and skills can be evaluated in an initial more formal assessment, the informal assessment permits teachers to check higher-level student competencies such as nonroutine problem solving and mathematical communication.

As a result of professional development in the use of formative assessments, teachers alter the use and choice of assessment instruments, the level of addressing learning for understanding, continuity of the assessment process, feedback to students, instructional practices, methods of scoring assessments and assigning grades, and perspectives in the ways their students learn.

Project staff are collecting data and will produce more reports contributing to a theory of classroom assessment, Romberg says. “We hope this work will help teachers document how individual students progress from informal to formal understanding of concepts and procedures in both mathematics and science.”

Two findings from this research stand out, says deLange. First, most mathematics teachers have limited understanding of formative assessment practices and they consequently provide their students with incomplete information about their progress. Second, teachers can learn to use such practices in their classrooms as a consequence of appropriate professional development. In turn, their students’ achievement improves.

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