“Why do I have to take another test?!” Sounds familiar, right? Teachers, too, complain about the number of assessments they are required to design, administer, and grade throughout the school year.
At Southport Middle School in Port St. Lucie, FL, we knew we needed to do a better job of using assessment data to help teachers target their curriculum and instruction to more successfully meet students’ needs. So, in 2014, we embarked on a journey to integrate formative assessment into our school culture. Since then, we have increased teacher collaboration, enhanced trust and transparency, improved student learning, and raised our school performance grade from a C to a B.
This overview of our journey provides steps that other schools can take to create a positive culture for formative assessment.
Year One: Creating Common Assessments
When we began, we knew that our teachers were working diligently to teach our state standards, but we didn’t know if we were assessing the standards in the right way. So, we set out to create common, standards-aligned assessments in each subject area. First, we conducted a summer training session with teachers, which focused on the standards. In each subject and grade level, we examined the intent of the standards and the appropriate level of rigor and cognitive complexity required to assess students’ understanding of the standards.
Then, we began to build our assessments. During the 2014–15 school year, we set aside time on Tuesday and Thursday mornings for teachers to engage in collaborative planning in each subject area. The principal, assistant principal, and instructional coach each participated as well, and we reviewed the assessments the teachers created to make sure the questions were aligned to the standards and at the appropriate level of cognitive complexity.
When teachers began administering these assessments, however, we found that many weren’t using the data in a meaningful way. They would simply note the percentage of questions each student answered correctly and move on. So, we decided to break down each question by the standard or standards it covered. We developed an Excel spreadsheet that we used for each assessment, each teacher, and each class period, and we manually entered students’ scores question by question, marking a “1” if they met the standard and a “0” if they didn’t. Having this data was very helpful to our teachers, and we were excited by the progress we were seeing. However, even with three of us—the principal, assistant principal, and coach—working on the spreadsheets, it was a long and cumbersome process to enter the data.
Year Two: Moving the Process Online
To make the collection and analysis of assessment data easier for us and our teachers, we turned to technology. In 2015–16, at the suggestion of Charles Hatherill, our district’s program manager for formative assessments, we piloted an assessment system at our school called Unify, which is part of the Performance Matters Growth Platform. As we began adding our common assessments—which we wrote in a multiple-choice format—to the online platform, we realized that we could now build online assessments using a variety of question types to mirror our state assessments. As a result, we rewrote many of our common assessments to include different item types, such as drag-and-drop or text entry.
Throughout the year, we continued to provide support to help teachers with the assessment process and with using the new system. This included providing differentiated training for each department and differentiated support based on teacher need.
In addition, we developed a data chat process using the data from the assessment system and a book that our school’s testing coordinator brought us, Using Data to Improve Learning for All by Nancy Love. Every data chat begins with each teacher highlighting the areas of strength shown in their data. After celebrating the strengths, the next step is to address the areas of weakness on the assessment and, consequently, develop a list of actionable steps to readdress the areas that still need additional time. These data chats include the teachers and at least one member of the school leadership team, and typically last about 35 to 40 minutes.
Year Three: Improving Data Chats, Developing Action Plans
As district administrators saw what we were accomplishing, St. Lucie Public Schools moved to create common assessments district-wide. In 2016–17, we began using these assessments in place of our own. However, teachers continued to use questions from our assessments to create quizzes to monitor educational standards.
Since we no longer had to develop our own common assessments, we were able to spend more time improving the data-chat process. As part of this process, we began regularly using student item analysis reports from our online assessment system to see which standards students were struggling with. Teachers then developed action plans to drive their instruction, which included reteaching specific standards for areas of weakness and administering additional assessments to further guide their instruction. We also followed up with teachers to make sure they completed their action steps.
We continued to support teachers with additional training on topics related to formative assessment and data-driven instruction during professional development days and quarterly planning days.
In almost any journey, there are going to be bumps, and this journey was no different. Initially, technology was one of our biggest barriers. In our first year, we had three computer labs available for online testing. To ensure each class had adequate time there, we created a lab schedule, which allowed the instructional coach to easily prioritize who got lab time, when, and for what purpose. As time went on, we put more of our funds toward technology. By the third year, we had eight fully staffed labs.
Another barrier was time. We decided to include the data chats in our collaborative planning time, since that time was already carved out of our Tuesday and Thursday mornings. Some teams then decided to do their data chats before or after school, but that choice was entirely up to them.
Transparency was another challenge. At first, teachers were reluctant to share their assessment data because they feared they would be judged and that the data would be used against them. To overcome this, we focused on creating collaborative conversations that started with the data. Each time we met, the conversations got easier and became more open. Teachers soon began to see how much they could learn from each other by sharing what was working and what wasn’t. With the online assessment system, it also became much easier to access real-time data so we could have more productive conversations and create more effective action plans.
Through their work creating quality assessments, our teachers now have a deeper understanding of the standards, and their conversations about instruction are more specific. They feel confident that they can openly discuss their successes and struggles, and they rely on each other to enhance their instructional practices. They see formative assessments as tools that can be utilized to meet students where they are and move them forward.
As a result of our efforts, our students are making academic gains. We raised our school grade from a C in 2014–15 to a B in 2015–16 and 2016–17.
We are excited about the results we are seeing. Our teachers feel a sense of pride in what we have achieved and want to keep the momentum going. By developing a culture of formative assessment, they see the value in assessment data and the difference it can make in their teaching and their students’ learning.
Kathleen Manchester is the assistant principal of Southport Middle School in Port St. Lucie, FL, where she previously served as the math coach. Tari Sexton served as assistant principal at Southport Middle School and is now assistant principal at Forest Grove Middle School in Ft. Pierce, FL.
Formative Assessment Do’s and Don’ts
- Align the assessment to the state standards.
- Chunk or divide up material appropriately.
- Know that an average time to respond to a question is two to three minutes.
- Have teachers take the assessment before they give it to students.
- Choose an assessment from a textbook.
- Take an assessment prior to or in the midst of a unit of instruction when the assessment is meant to measure mastery at the end.