Monday, March 31, 2008

Why Left-Brainers Don't Get High Grades, Part II: Formative Assessment

Back when most schools used the Iowa and Stanford achievement tests, children could demonstrate skills that exceeded their current grade levels. The watered down, standards-based tests that more and more states are using under No Child Left Behind only rate children on whether they meet standards that, in fact, are low relative to grade level.

Further obscuring grade-level math skills in particular, schools are giving up traditional assessments like end-of-unit tests in favor of what's called "formative" or "authentic" assessment. As described, for example, by the standards-based report card guidelines of the Christiana School District in Newark Delaware, this involves:

• Observations of students at work (observing, predicting, testing, recording, computing, analyzing)
• Oral responses (explaining, reporting, questioning, justifying)
• Journal entries
• Samples of student work.

While these guidelines allow testing, they warn that it “should not be the primary instrument used to determine a report card grade.”

As a means of informing teachers about student learning, formative assessment has its virtues (for a recent discussion, see kitchentablemath).

But as a basis for grading, formative assessment severely shortchanges certain types of math buffs.

Worst off are those to whom math comes so easily--particularly in its watered-down, standards-based incarnation--that they can ace the actual math without doing the extra work. These students not only see no virtue in the journals, the group assignments, the discussions, and much of the homework, but are so bored by these activities that they often opt out or tune out.

But, as we will see in my next post, even those left-brain math-buffs who play by the new rules suffer lower grades than many of their less mathematically capable classmates.


concernedCTparent said...

What are your thoughts on value-added assessment?

Value-Added Assessment: Powerful Diagnostics to Improve Instruction and Promote Student Achievement

"The value-added approach to assessment centers on a disarmingly simple but profound
notion: schools cannot solve all of society's problems, but they can and should ensure that every
child receives a year's worth of growth in a year. A year's worth of growth ¾ whether children
start the year below, on, or above grade ¾ is the amount that should be reasonably expected of
them based on what they actually achieved in past years. This belief ¾ that each child is entitled to at least this much annual growth ¾ lies at the heart of value-added methodology."

lefty said...

Thanks for this article! Value-added seems like such a commonsensical way to assess performance, and it's too bad that it isn't getting more publicity.

Our local public school is a case in point for Hershberg's observations about high-performing schools. Of all the public grade schools in the city, it's got perhaps the highest proportion of college+ educated parents, and its test scores reflect this. But certain people are quick to credit not just the teachers, but also the Reform Math program we use (Investigations; most of the other schools in the district use Everyday Math).

On another note, I wonder what Hershberg would propose for grades: should these, too, be based on progress, or should skill-level be taken into account as well? Certainly magnet high schools and colleges would want to know about the latter.

Btw, on your recommendation, I've started to read Teaching Needy Kids. Fascinating.... and, of course, infuriating as well! Thanks for suggesting it.

Catherine Johnson said...

Have you read Hoxby's article on wage compression?

I believe that is happening to kids. Newspapers write about grade inflation but what we have is grade compression.

Wage Distortion

This is deadly to kids' college applications, btw. (Also to private school applications.) We've just made the round of private schools. We found that the people who work in private schools universally assume that public schools are mediocre and easy.

In fact, these schools are mediocre and hard, and the accelerated kids get lots of Bs.

When a private schools sees Bs on the transcript of a student with high standardized test scores admissions officers assume there's something wrong with the kid, not the school.

Catherine Johnson said...

My strong feeling about formative assessment is that it should not be used to assign grades.

I see nothing to be gained by blurring the distinction between formative and summative assessment -- although I do believe that all teachers should use summative assessments in a formative manner. That is to say, when a teacher gives a test he or she should use the scores as information, not just judgments.

concernedCTparent said...

That is to say, when a teacher gives a test he or she should use the scores as information, not just judgments.


Which is why standardized tests are useless. They are simply a hoop to jump through. Most districts don't use standardized tests as a diagnostic tool and they aren't designed to function as such either.

Our district just finished up standardized testing and results won't be in until end of summer. By then, placements will be made, teachers assigned, and those scores won't even be considered until the next school year. Children who enter school in the fall already having mastered the material will have to sit through it again, those who are far from mastering it will flounder until they're sinking at which point it's too late. These types of tests have little if any value at all.

That said, a test be given in the true spirit of formative assessment (a pre-test if you will), that is designed to be a diagnostic tool, and as a result of this, measured decisions taken in the best interest of the child, it's a whole 'nother ball of wax. At the end of the school term, you test again and if the teaching was effective you would see the appropriate gain, you would have a benchmark for each student that would really mean something.

lefty said...

Catherine, thanks for the article on teacher wage compression--very interesting, and certainly something that few people have wanted to publicize. It's especially interesting how it interacts with what you've noted as grade compression--since mediocre teachers are surely one reason for this phenomenon.

Here's another reason for compression--in higher education. I've taught a number of classes at the college/graduate level in which there is downwards pressure from deans not to give out two many A's, and upwards pressure from students who get anything lower than a B. The temptation, to which my colleagues and I find ourselves succumbing, is to give nearly everyone a B or B+. Most of us, I think, continue to reserve A's for the very best, so in this case it's the students in various flavors of mediocre who suffer the most, and the weakest ones who "benefit" the most.

lefty said...

On the value of the standardized tests that public schools use, I agree with concerned parent that they're pretty useless. But I think some types of standardized tests--ones like the SAT and AP that actually measure high achievement and sophisticated skill-- are what potentially keep options open for bright kids like Catherine's son. For at least they have some venue in which to show that they are smart. (Even though the SAT isn't quite what it used to be).

Now if only the private schools would wise up to the fact of public school grade compression, and fact that mediocre teachers don't hesitate to give mediocre grades to students who are smarter than they are.

concernedCTparent said...

Formative assessment shouldn't have anything to do with grades. Definitely not. It all works so nicely with the projects and the group learning and the other stuff that seems to occupy the bulk of a student's time these days. I suppose when you're spending so much time on that kind of stuff, formative assessment is the way to go.

There are definitely standardized tests such as the SAT, AP, and CogAT that are valuable indicators. I am definitely not anti-testing, and I think it's crucial to evaluate content and application of knowledge.

I particularly agree with the need, during the elementary years, to establish a baseline for each child and monitor that over time to assure the appropriate gains are being made, and if not, diagnose and address the issue. This is the stronghold of direct instruction and precision teaching. Unfortunately, the standardized tests in almost every one of our states have little to do with anything that makes sense.