guest written by Steve Silvius of Three Ring
In their foundational work, “Inside the Black Box,” Black and Wiliam demonstrated how powerful the concept of formative assessment can be when implemented as a central part of teaching and learning. Sadly, as the term formative assessment spread, the concept was largely lost, diluted, or overlooked. At this point, there may be no rehabilitating the terminology, but we will make a serious mistake if we abandon the concept as well—it’s importance, its challenges, and the values, approaches, and tools that make it possible.
In her recent report for the Council of Chief State School Officers, Margaret Heritage reminds the education world that formative assessment is a process, not a specific assessment. That is, it makes sense to say, “We are engaging in formative assessment,” but not to say, “this quiz is a formative assessment.” Indeed, Black et. al. make the important point that — properly understood — “all assessment is formative.” If we believe in lifelong learning, there is no final exam.
The most powerful tool for better assessment is the portfolio. A portfolio, whether of a class, teacher, student, or school is a recognition that assessment is a holistic endeavor. Portfolios work because they embody the notion that intellectual activity is at the heart of teaching and learning and because they refuse to reduce a person’s complex intellectual activity to a simple letter or number.
I agree wholeheartedly with Debra Finger that narrative approaches to grading and the maintenance of portfolios, though sometimes painstaking, allow us to build the nuanced understanding of students that is essential for better teaching and learning. And, I am deeply impressed by Lauren Scheller’s list of guidelines to implementing portfolios in the classroom, as well as her brilliantly perceptive observation that grading systems too often obscure the point of learning, creating a situation where students are confused about how to even calculate their grades, much less improve them. Portfolios can change this because they are tools for assessment, for communication, for intervention, and for fostering ownership.
If we believe all this to be true, it is imperative to make authentic assessment as simple as possible to actually do. I currently am working with a dedicated team to create a platform for digitizing student work that is easy to use, flexible, and powerful for instruction, assessment, and communication. It is my hope that tools such as these will provide teachers and learners with ways to ensure that assessment serves pedagogy.
I hope that teachers and other stakeholders will use my our product, but more importantly, I hope that they will adopt the following values of good assessment and think deeply about the implications of these values in their work:
1. Understanding. Authentic assessment requires a strong understanding of what student work in your content should look like, where your students are creating this type of work, and where they are falling short. This must go deeper than numerical/letter labels and marks indicating right and wrong. Digital portfolios are an ideal tool for capturing this rich data and getting behind the grades to what really matters—student intellectual activity.
2. Communication. Authentic assessment also requires us to communicate clearly about these qualitative aspects of student work. Digital portfolios can provide teachers, with evidence to reference, space to give descriptive feedback, and the flexibility to withhold grades until later in the process—after students have had time to incorporate feedback into their learning and work.
3. Ownership: Finally, authentic assessment requires peer and self-assessment, so students can take true ownership of their learning. Done correctly, this takes a burden off teachers making it natural for every student to adapt pacing and learning to their individual needs. Digital portfolios are perfect tools to enable this. They provide students an opportunity to curate, share, examine, and reflect on their own work. Unlike traditional portfolios, which might often be primarily about demonstrating your best work, digital portfolios make it easy to track progress, to engage with your best and your worst, and to see how far you have come. This is true of teachers, as well as students.
These principles are at the heart of effective assessment processes. They are not always easy to adhere to (in fact, they are very difficult) but we believe they are powerful enough that we’ve designed our entire company to make them easier for teachers to achieve. Our hope is to reclaim the term “formative assessment” from the jargon rubbish bin to which it has been banished
About the author: Stephen Silvius (@stevesilvius) is a former Los Angeles high school mathematics teacher and education researcher. His work at Oxford University examined issues around student voice in the discourse of secondary school mathematics classrooms. He is currently the Chief Education Officer at Three Ring—an education startup dedicated to bringing teachers and students a simple platform for digitizing student work (@teamthreering).