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Supporting quality teachers

Formative Assessment May Be Key to Best Practices

By Roxi Rejali

What makes a good teacher? How can quality teachers help students improve learning and student outcomes? Parents, educators, and policy makers want to know.

Supporting quality teachers is a policy priority.

Teacher quality has become a renewed priority in education policy at the federal, state, and local levels. No Child Left Behind requires “highly qualified” teachers in public schools, while the federal stimulus bill passed in February included money for teacher development. Minnesota state leaders are encouraging school districts to adopt Q Comp, which links teacher pay to teacher quality and student achievement and supports job-embedded professional development.

Teacher quality may be hard to define, but research by Misty Sato, assistant professor of teacher development and science education, may offer some steps for achieving it. Sato observed that teachers who appraise their own classroom approach make measurable improvements, such as setting clear learning goals and providing feedback to students—key elements of formative assessment.

In traditional summative assessment, teachers assign grades to student work at the end of a course or project. Formative assessment, by contrast, encourages teachers to continuously gauge learning in their classrooms. Students discover how to revise and improve their work based on feedback from their teacher and peers, alike.

“This is not looking at a student’s work for the purposes of assigning a grade, but a process for the teacher to determine what needs to be improved and how to guide students’ next steps by providing specific feedback,” Sato says. “It’s more about tutoring your own practice and supporting student learning.” The formative assessment process can reveal patterns in students’ understanding of concepts and skills, allowing teachers to adjust and refine their teaching techniques.

Ongoing student evaluation and feedback helps teachers facilitate student learning.

Several studies have concluded that improved formative assessment practices raise overall student achievement, including a well-known article that surveyed more than 250 research sources on the topic (Black, P. & Wiliam, D., 1998). Sato's research showed how teachers can improve their formative assessment practices.

What the research shows

The three-year longitudinal study, which Sato conducted while completing postdoctoral work at Stanford University, examined 16 middle- and high-school math and science teachers in the San Francisco metropolitan area. Researchers compared two groups: those who were engaged in National Board Certification—a nationally recognized professional endorsement for educators—and those who were not. As part of their research, Sato and her colleagues at Stanford, Ruth Chung Wei and Linda Darling-Hammond, studied lesson plans, classroom videos, and samples of student work. They also surveyed students, who reported that teachers who used formative assessment practices assigned more hands-on activities and group discussions and allowed more time for self-evaluation and reflection.

The National Board Certification process improved formative assessment practice.

During the National Board Certification process, participating educators shared teaching ideas and strategies and reviewed videos of their classrooms with other teachers. Through this process, the research participants were encouraged to improve their teaching methods as part of a community of professionals. Sato’s 2008 study concluded that when teachers analyzed their teaching on their own or within peer groups, guided by the National Board Certification process, their formative assessment practices improved.

One teacher in the study reported: “I saw things in [other teachers’] practice that I wanted in my own, and I saw things in my practice that I didn’t want there anymore.”

What others are saying

Formative assessment holds great promise as a focus for teacher development, says Jenni Norlin-Weaver (Ed.D. ’99), director of teaching and learning at Edina Public Schools. At a time when teachers are routinely bombarded by negative messages, the process empowers them to tailor assessment methods to their classrooms. “I think it further enhances (teachers’) sense of efficacy—a sense that what you do makes a difference,” adds Norlin-Weaver, who is former president of the Minnesota Staff Development Council.

Formative assessment empowers teachers in the classroom.

Research into the possible impact of formative assessment on teacher quality is valuable, says Mary Cathryn Ricker, president of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers, which is negotiating for additional teacher development time built into the school schedule. “Anytime we reflect on what’s wrong, we tend to find a solution to make it right,” says Ricker, a former middle-school English teacher and National Board Certified Teacher. “As teachers, if we’re reflecting on—'Why didn’t sixth period go so well yesterday?'—chances are good that it’s going to help sixth period go better today.”

Next steps

Sato plans to further explore formative assessment with a follow-up study funded by the Knowles Science Teaching Foundation, in partnership with Twin Cities high-school science teachers. The study will investigate how teachers incorporate formative assessment into their classroom work over two years. Sato hopes that the new research will provide ways that other teachers can incorporate formative assessment into their day-to-day instruction.

Online resources

Black, P. & Wiliam, D. (October 1998), “Inside the black box: Raising standards through classroom assessment,” Phi Delta Kappan, Vol. 80, No. 2.

Sato, M., Wei, R. C., & Darling-Hammond, L. (2008). Improving teachers’ assessment practices through professional development: The case of National Board Certification. American Educational Research Journal, 45(3), 669-700.

Sato, M. & Atkin, J M. (2006). Supporting change in classroom assessment. Educational Leadership, 64(4), 76-79.

For more information

Misty Sato


Revised May 2009

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