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I was recently honored with the brief opportunity to speak to Colorado’s HB1202 Task Force, which is studying the state’s assessment system and responsible for suggesting changes to the Colorado Legislature for consideration in the upcoming legislative session.

I focused my remarks on the importance, process, and evidence on formative measures.  I also spoke to the differences between accountability assessments in the United States (and Colorado) versus other high performing nations or municipalities.

The memo I prepared for the group can be accessed here: HB1202 ECS Flyover

The entire text is also provided below.  I welcome observations, comments, questions, or critique.

Memorandum

From:  Jason E. Glass, Superintendent & Chief Learner

To:      HB 14-1202 Task Force

Re:      Formative Assessment & a Flyover of Assessment in Eagle County

Date:   9.15.2014

Purpose

The purpose of this memorandum is to briefly orient the members of the HB14-1202 Task Force to the large-scale theory of change, an instructionally focused approach to assessment, and some of the formative measures employed in Eagle County Schools.  For clarity, this memo will focus on measures whose chief purpose is for improving instruction, as opposed to measures whose chief purpose is accountability.

The Instructional Core

Eagle County Schools uses an “international benchmarking” approach to school improvement.  That is, practices are drawn from comparative studies of high performing education systems, both within the United States and abroad.  In addition, the organization focuses on practices which have the support of a peer-reviewed body of evidence.

As such, the “in-school” theory of change rests on three major and interrelated tenets which feature prominently in every high-performing educational system.  Liz City and Richard Elmore (2009) capture these three elements in their discussions of the “instructional core,” or the relationship between the teacher and student in the presence of content.

Instructional Core

Important to City and Elmore’s framework, there is an emphasis on the relationship between the three components.  One element cannot change without impacting the other two.  For example, we cannot effectively raise the quality or “rigor” of the content (or standards) without also adapting the instructional approach of the teacher and the engagement level of the student.

Assessment through the Lens of Instruction

Formative measurement is an essential part of bringing the instructional core to life.  For the teacher to effectively reach and engage every student in learning, that teacher must understand the level of current content performance or knowledge of their students.  The teacher must deliver high quality instruction and then determine if that instruction had the desired impact on students (i.e. improved content knowledge or skills).  Almost invariably, some students will require additional supports or a differentiated approach to reach the content or skill standard.  So, the teacher must apply some intervention, customized to the student, and then check again to see if that intervention had the effect of raising the student to the performance standard.

The “response to intervention” or “response to instruction” (RtI) model provides a useful framework for understanding this process.

RtI

Well designed and employed formative assessments are ‘part and parcel’ to the RtI process.  All students should receive a universal screen or benchmark assessment as part of the general education curriculum.  As there may be some time (days, weeks, or months) between the administrations of these assessments, they can be referred to as long cycle.

These long cycle results will reveal some students who struggle to meet the standard in the general education environment, who should then receive some intervention customized to that student’s needs.  Determining the appropriate intervention often requires the use of a diagnostic test to determine the precise area where the student is struggling (ex. phonics vs. phonemic awareness).  Then, once an intervention is applied, the determination as to if the intervention is working should be made through a progress monitoring assessment.  As the time between these assessments is less than at the universal level, they are sometimes called medium cycle assessments and may be administered every few learning sessions or weeks (or longer, as the team of practitioners determine).

Even after a targeted intervention, some students will require an intensive support.  These students will receive diagnostic and progress monitoring even more frequently – perhaps multiple times over the course of the lesson as the teacher iterates to determine what is the barrier to learning and if it is being mitigated through supports or other interventions.

The RtI approach is based on the principles of a “high reliability system” (see Eck et al., 2011), meaning generally that as the probability of failure increases then supports/interventions and monitoring also increases.  The goal is to determine which students are struggling and why as quickly as possible and to intervene so that the student meets the performance standard.

Notably, formative assessments may be more standardized and formal or they may be individualized and informal.  A powerful mode of formative assessment is a teacher walking through a room as students work, asking questions and checking for understanding.  Alternatively, formative assessment may involve sophisticated and computer-based standardized measures.  Variations in formative assessments may stem from variations in the elements of the instructional core (different teachers, different students, and different content) or from constraints related to things like time and technology.  This entire process may happen in a very structured and mechanical way, or it may happen much more naturally and intuitively.  What is most important is that it is, in fact, happening.

It should also be noted that the formative assessment process is not exclusive to the teacher.  Perhaps the most powerful mode of formative assessment is for the student to self-monitor and assess their own progress.

Evidence and Formative Assessments

The body of both comparative and peer-reviewed scientific evidence for the effectiveness of formative assessment is (in my professional opinion) strong.

Black and William (1998), in a meta-analysis, found that student achievement gains associated with formative instructional practices were “among the largest ever reported for educational interventions.”

Similarly, Hattie (2011), also in a meta-analysis of over 50,000 studies, identified strategies related to formative assessment and RtI among the largest effect sizes calculated.

From a comparative system perspective, formative assessment and responsive teaching form the instructional basis of practically every high performing education system.  Finland, a system perhaps more averse to summative accountability testing than any other in the world, uses formative assessment extensively.  In Schwartz & Mehta’s chapter on Finland in Tucker’s comparative study Surpassing Shanghai, it is noted that “While the Finns do not assess for accountability purposes, they do an enormous amount of diagnostic or formative assessment at the classroom level.”

Notably, when a Finnish principal was asked (in Schwartz & Mehta) how well she knew students were performing, she answered that there was so much formative assessment data at her disposal it was impossible not to know.

Formative Assessments in Eagle County Schools

Eagle County Schools relies on a number of formative measures to guide instruction.  Choice over the appropriate use of these formative measures is left to the building practitioners, including the building principal, teacher leaders, and classroom teachers.

Depending on grade/developmental level, student characteristics, staff preferences, content area, or specific purpose – the following is an incomplete list of formative assessments used in Eagle County.

  • Early Childhood & Elementary
    • GOLD Assessment
    • mCLASS (DIBELS Next/IDEL)
    • AIMS Web
    • Core Knowledge Language Arts
    • Engage New York, Literacy & Math (Achieve)
    • District Formative Measures (ECS Teacher Developed)
    • Classroom grades (standards based)
  • Middle School
    • mCLASS (DIBELS Next/IDEL)
    • Renaissance STAR
    • NWEA MAPS
    • Engage New York, Literacy & Math (Achieve)
    • District Formative Measures (ECS Teacher Developed)
    • Classroom grades
  • High School
    • NWEA MAPS
    • District Formative Measures (ECS Teacher Developed)
    • Classroom grades

Conclusion

Eagle County Schools is, admittedly, not yet a globally high performing system.  But, we are in our first year of building an instructionally focused assessment system patterned after global high performers.  As such, formative assessment is central part of that effort.

References

Black, P., & William, D. (1998).  Inside the Black Box: Raising Standards Through Classroom Assessment.  Phi Delta Kappan, 80, 139-148.

City, E., Elmore, R., Fierman, S., & Teitel, L. (2009).  Instructional Rounds in Education: A Network Approach to Improving Teaching and Learning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Eck, J., Bellamy, G., Schaffer, E., Stringfield, S., Reynolds, D. (2011).  High Reliability Organizations in Education.  Noteworthy Perspectives, 1-48.

Hattie, J. (2011).  Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning.  New York, NY: Routledge.

Tucker, M. (2011).  Surpassing Shanghai:  An Agenda for American Education Built on the World’s Leading School Systems.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

 NCEE Infographic

 Info-graphic from the National Center on Education & the Economy

Shane Vander Hart recently wrote a piece for his very entertaining and thought provoking blog, Caffeinated Thoughts responding to my remarks at the 2011 SAI Annual Conference.

After gently letting left-leaning Jennifer Hemmingsen have it over her coverage of education policy in Iowa, I would stand to lose my “I don’t give a damn about politics, let’s improve schools” credentials if I didn’t give right-leaning Shane Vander Hart the same treatment.

Let’s first set the record straight about the Iowa Core and the Common Core. I don’t expect Shane and I to ever see eye to eye on this and that’s ok – in this country we are free to disagree and are better from an open exchange of ideas. As I understand it, Shane’s position is that the Iowa Core/Common Core is some sort of Obama-driven-federal-takeover-plot aimed at indoctrinating your children to love Chairman Mao and slowly transform this country into North Korea. OK, I may have embellished that last statement … slightly (apologies Shane – just having some fun at your expense!).

Where does this conspiracy theory drivel come from? The fact is that the National Common Core was and remains a STATE led (not a federal government) initiative. The Common Core represents student expectations in reading and math that are on par with the highest performing systems in the world and also represent the kinds of skills our students are going to need to be competitive in a global context. The fact is that a common thread among the highest performing school systems in the world is the adoption of clear and rigorous standards for all students (see example after example in Michael Fullan’s latest work and in Marc Tucker’s analysis of high performing school systems).

Shane goes on to (falsely) state the the Iowa Department of Education and the State Board had no authority from the legislature to establish the Iowa Core or merge it with the Common Core. This is just silliness about the authority to enact the Iowa Core (which contains the Common Core as its Math and English/Language Arts elements). The fact is that the Iowa legislature gave the Iowa Department of Education and the Iowa State Board the directive to establish the Core. To the point that this wan’t an open process, all of the State Board’s steps to include the Common Core in the Iowa Core were public proceedings, as is every action taken by the Board. Sorry Shane, this is within the lines.

Shane goes on to make the dreadfully predictable case that I am pushing for some sort of hyper-centralized school system. Actually, as I’ve stated many times before and stated in my remarks to the SAI Administrators, I’m calling for a reasonable balance of all the players in the education system. Each part has an important role to play, and Iowa’s schools will be best served if all the parts are working together and in symphony.

Governor Branstad was clear to me about my role in Iowa: Make these schools among the best in the world. That happens by building capacity at ALL levels and focusing the whole system on carefully selected strategies tailored to this context. It will not happen by closing your eyes and hoping all 350 districts in the state of Iowa spontaneously pull off becoming a world-class system on their own through some miraculous convergence.

Improvement to put Iowa on par with the highest performing systems in the world takes an intentional and focused effort. Raising useless and worn out rhetoric about government takeovers, “indoctrination,” and “educrats” just regurgitates political soundbites and does little to move Iowa forward to being a great school system.

We do need to build up and support local capacity – but we also need to focus our efforts in a way that makes this fractured patchwork of schools start to move as a system.

Jason Glass
Des Moines, IA

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