As personalized learning becomes a more mainstream pedagogy in K–12 classrooms, teachers have started to adapt assessment processes to get a deeper look at student growth.
When it comes to assessing student knowledge levels, data has empowered more schools to choose formative assessments versus summative assessments.
Unlike summative assessments, which provide an overall view of a student’s growth from the beginning to the end of a class, formative assessments allow teachers to assess students as they learn and adjust the curriculum to focus on areas where students may need more help.
“A skilled teacher can re-direct instruction based on feedback that they are receiving from their students throughout the flow of a lesson,” writes Alexis Roesser, an English teacher and department chair at Salamanca High School in New York. “They do not require the same level of planning or execution as a summative assessment, so they are easier to insert into a lesson when the instructor needs to take a quick ‘temperature check.’”
By combining these more flexible assessments with a collection of student data, teachers get a more accurate snapshot of how a student is internalizing the material and focusing on more data-driven instructions.
What Are Summative Assessments Vs. Formative Assessments
Giving feedback to students is an integral part of the teaching process, and both formative and summative assessments have their place in the classroom.
Summative assessments, such as final exams, can be a great way to assess the efficacy of a curriculum within a school, offering a view of an entire class in order to judge what materials or classroom structures may need to be adjusted for the next year.
These encompassing assessments — in combination with data collection tools, such as an interoperable “digital backpack” system — can alert teachers to unusual student behavior and identify roadblocks that may be getting in the way of a student grasping the material.
“For example, if an individual student’s summative assessment is significantly different from previous test data, a teacher may want to look for underlying issues or problems,” Monica Fuglei writes for education blog Room 241. “Sometimes this provides insight into something other than pedagogy: soft skill issues or non-education-related happenings that have a profound influence on student learning.”
Formative assessments, meanwhile, provide for more fluid interaction between teachers and students. These short, informal quizzes can offer snapshots of individual student performance and allow teachers to adjust their teaching as the student grows.
“At the heart of formative assessment is the underlying goal of meeting students where they are in their learning,” notes an anonymous study from Digital Promise. “There are many kinds of assessments that educators use in the classroom—what makes them ‘formative’ is when the information from the assessment is used to adapt the instructional approach to meet students’ learning needs.”
Teachers Use Online Forms to Gauge Student Learning
Kathy Dyer is manager of innovation and learning, professional learning at NWEA, a research-based nonprofit organization for student assessments. When using formative assessment practices, Dyer writes, educators should strive for three distinct things:
- The use of formative assessment has to be such that the data collected allows the teacher to differentiate the levels of understanding among the learners.
- Both learners and teachers need to be able to use the results to see what the level of understanding actually is, and when the learner can make adjustments independently or may need assistance.
- When the learner’s understanding is deep enough, the skills and knowledge transfer to new situations. The evidence gathered should provide information about that transfer. This data gathered and used formatively informs the decisions learners and teachers make regarding next steps.
For some educators, digital forms have been a productive way to achieve this. These online tools help teachers quickly create quizzes, surveys, polls and other assessment materials, which can then be manipulated individually to fit the growth of each student and generate data pools of new types of student data.
In one middle school that participated in the Digital Promise study, teachers used Microsoft Forms, which utilizes Azure to collect and analyze data. The tool, available as part of Microsoft 365 Education, helped teachers conduct a preassessment to measure each student’s skill level before lessons began.
“I’ll give a Forms quiz before a topic to get an idea of what students already know and use that to inform my teaching. I can then make any adjustments to my lessons to make them more appropriate for my students,” one teacher told Digital Promise.
As the student progresses, the formative assessments change, at first addressing the areas the student was not familiar with and then evolving as he or she grasps the material.
Microsoft Forms is flexible enough to support formative assessments of an entire grade. One elementary school involved in the study used digital forms to regularly quiz all third-grade students. Utilizing Microsoft Forms’ automatic data graphing and analysis tools, teachers can compare data across classes as a way to compare teaching practices.
“By giving students the same five questions, we’re able to see what students’ strengths and weakness are with a particular standard,” a member of the elementary school told Digital Promise.
Formative Assessments and Student Data Are Pathways to Adaptive Learning
Formative assessments are just one part of a larger learning initiative known as adaptive learning. As the name suggests, adaptive learning encourages teachers and students to approach education from a flexible perspective, expanding and improving the curriculum based on students’ progress throughout the year.
This teaching style is relatively new — only 20 percent of K–12 students have experienced it — which means the research supporting its efficacy is sparse. However, companies are developing adaptive learning and formative assessment tools quickly to keep up with the growing interest.
For example, HP is offering schools the opportunity to integrate adaptive learning into their curriculum with HP Adaptive Learning, as part of its HP School Pack 2.0, integrated with HP Chromebooks. SMART Learning Suite also offers adaptive learning software, which includes formative assessment tools and support for data collection and analysis.
Schools that have begun to use adaptive technology tools have been encouraged by the results.
At Aspire ERES Academy in Oakland, students spend up to 80 minutes daily on their Chromebooks using online, adaptive learning tools.
During the week, second-grade teacher Mark Montero spends time talking with students about the progress they have made using the adaptive technology tools, and will sometimes pair struggling students with others who are excelling, whom he calls “student coaches.”
Montero also has access to data collected directly from the online assessments he conducts, which give him further insight into where lessons should be directed.
While these assessments haven’t provided any quantitative data on improvement in outcomes, Montero has adapted his teaching strategy to engage students by allowing them to have more control over their learning.
“You have to let go of some of the micromanagement,” Montero says in a study conducted by Pearson. “You have to trust that each student is working hard, and working at their top level.”