Formative assessment is about more than making the grade

This is part of a series about how teachers use formative assessment to drive their classroom instruction.  You can find the full series here.

The first year of teaching is always rough.  My first year was a struggle for all the usual reasons, but the challenges were exacerbated by the fact that I graded every single assignment my students touched while in my classroom.  I did this because I thought that grades were a great classroom management system and that my students deserved to earn credit for completing tasks.  That year I managed to drown myself in grades, but the more I graded the more confounded I became as to what a grade meant and why I assigned them in the first place.

I come from a science background and love data because you can’t argue with hard facts, which should support and allow you to predict the results.  However, I was stumped by two particular students: Yousef and Sara.  Sara was a great student, always prepared for class, always a hard worker on class assignments, and always turned in her homework. Yousef, however, was not the ideal student as he never turned in homework and always seemed off-task.  All data suggested that Sara would have high test grades and make an easy A in the class and that Yousef would struggle and potentially fail.  However, time after time, the opposite was true and Sara was the one who failed every test and Yousef never missed a question.  At the end of the term, both ended up with C’s in chemistry.  I knew I drastically needed to change how I used grades for the next year.

Shifting my approach

As I dug in more to the meaning of grades, I realized that student’s efforts and grades don’t always positively correlate.  In my second year, I decided to stop grading homework and only grade tests.  I did this partly for my own sanity, but also so that instead of spending time entering grades while students worked on assignments, I could spend a big chunk of class time watching students practice problems and give immediate feedback.

For students like Sara, this allowed to me see immediately where she began to get confused because I was watching them work out a problem.  It also allowed me to catch students who relied a great deal on their table partner to supply the answer for them instead of being able to digest and comprehend the material.  To help these students I would break the complex tasks into smaller chunks (such as identifying numbers in multiple word problems, then picking a formula, then plugging in numbers and solving versus doing all the steps at one time for one problem), or explain foreign words, or give a more detailed picture or example than what I had presented initially to the whole class.

This new approach also helped me to effectively teach students like Yousef who didn’t see the point in doing the same thing over and over again when they understand concepts within the first couple of problems.  When I could see first-hand that these students caught on quickly and understood the basics, I could push them to a deeper level of understanding right away and avoid the busy work.  I would have them complete more challenging problems (“beast mode problems”) with the same content, or ask them if they wanted to be the class tutor and explain the content to others who had questions, or had them summarize the concept or create their own problem to solve.

My system worked better than I anticipated because every student I’ve ever taught has struggled with one area of the content, but also has completely mastered at least one concept.  This means that every student in my class gets to do the “beast mode” problems or be the class tutor and most feel extremely proud of their accomplishments and success at mastering the content.

Completing more formative assessments in class without penalizing the students has done wonders for my classroom management.

The power of actionable classroom data

Students initially panic when I first tell them that I only grade tests, but most quickly come to appreciate it. All practice exercises we do in class are learning opportunities and never a punishment or mindless task.  I can quickly tell when the whole class understands something and it is time to move on or when I failed miserably at explaining a concept and we need to stop as a class and talk about it.  Students also tend to take more ownership over their learning and are able to tell me where they need help.  Some even ask me for more practice in an effort to learn the material.

Completing more formative assessments in class without penalizing the students has done wonders for my classroom management. Every conversation is driven by my students’ individual learning needs and provides feedback for me to change my delivery of material and practice, if needed.  I also now feel confident in my grading scale because an A in my class means that a student has mastered the material regardless of behavior and how many attempts it took to get to that level.

Carolyn Andrews has been teaching science at Glencliff High School in Nashville, TN since 2010.  She has taught Chemistry for six years, Honors Chemistry for five years, AP Chemistry for three years and Physical Science 1 for one year.  She has a Bachelor of Science degree in Biochemistry and Genetics, Cell and Developmental Biology from the University of Minnesota- Twin Cities, a Master of Science degree from Vanderbilt University and a Master of Education degree from Belmont University.


Read other blogs in the series:

Formative assessment is fundamental to good teaching