Understanding and Using Formative Assessments: A Mixed Methods Study of "Assessment for Learning" Adoption
Fleming, Paul B.
Heyburn, Sara L.
James Popham, a leading figure in educational test development and criterion-referenced measurements sums up the power of formative assessment in this way: "The goal of formative assessment is to supply assessment-elicited evidence by which teachers or students try to enhance learning…Formative assessment helps students learn. It helps teachers be more instructionally effective and principals transform their schools into places where students are educated more successfully. In short, formative assessment can pay off for all those who are touched by it." (2008, p.18, 20) In an effort to promote formative assessment in Jefferson County Public Schools, during the spring of 2009 the district launched an initiative focused on the understanding and use of formative assessment. For this initiative, district leaders selected a program developed by Rick Stiggins and the Educational Testing Service called Assessment for Learning© (AfL). The pilot phase of the AfL initiative began with nine self-selected schools – five elementary schools, one middle school, two high schools, and the district‘s on-line ―virtual" school. In September of 2009 a team of three to five teachers and one administrator from each of the nine pilot schools attended two days of training on the AfL program conducted by Rick Stiggins and his associates. In conjunction with the pilot phase of the AfL initiative, JCPS partnered with our capstone project team to study various aspects of the pilot schools‘ experiences with the AfL program. As such, our project design is guided by four questions: What is the school culture concerning collaboration, specifically as it relates to formative assessment? How have pilot schools responded to the Assessment for Learning program at the school and classroom levels? What influence has the Assessment for Learning training had on instructional practices and attitudes at the pilot schools? What institutional and individual obstacles do teachers face in adopting Assessment for Learning? through multiple data collection efforts, including teacher/administrator surveys, interviews with pilot school principals and AfL- trained teachers, observations at pilot schools and participation in district-wide professional development sessions related to the AfL initiative. Analyses of these data revealed the following key findings: Early Stages of AfL Adoption A number of practices and strategies associated with AfL adoption are evident in our findings. These, include the following: Principal commitment to the initiative. Regular collaboration around AfL among teachers and principals. Increased instructional intentionality and more purposeful planning have become more common among AfL-trained teachers. Students and AfL-trained teachers are developing partnerships around instruction and assessment. Student engagement and motivation has increased in AfL-trained teachers‘ classrooms. Challenges to AfL Adoption: AfL is a complex program and takes time and ongoing support to implement successfully and to earn teacher buy-in. Time is a barrier to program adoption as it is difficult to find time during the school day for AfL collaboration, reflection, and training of other school staff. Some teachers and principals are concerned that district support for AfL will be short-lived. Some teachers and principals perceive a tension between expectations regarding curriculum coverage, district assessments, and the goals of AfL. Based upon these findings, we have developed several recommendations, which we believe will prove useful for future stages of the AfL initiative in JCPS. Specifically, our recommendations include the following: AfL Training. Hold AfL training sessions in the summer to allow for more focused program study and advance lesson planning that incorporates AfL strategies. Design AfL training sessions to be subject- and grade-level specific. In future training sessions, make use of AfL-trained teachers from the first AfL pilot cohort. Administrative and District Support: Ensure that school level administrators provide regular time for embedded AfL-related professional development. Encourage intentional, incremental program adoption across the district and within individual schools to increase teacher buy-in and provide time to master each AfL component. Carefully communicate how the AfL initiative aligns with district and state standards and goals to prevent a perception among teachers and principals that these are competing expectations. Maintain sufficient financial support for the AfL initiative. Foster a feedback loop among stakeholders through ongoing communication and evaluation of the AfL initiative, including measurement against characteristics of high quality professional development. The findings of this report, while limited by the capstone project‘s scope and structure, contribute to the emerging body of literature on AfL specifically, and formative assessment, professional development, and district support/role more generally.