No matter how much I have learned in my nine years of teaching, it always helps me to have a quick explanation of what I am researching or writing about to help set my focus. The common definition of summative assessment is to summarize student learning at a midway or ending point in a lesson plan or unit. Summative assessments usually come in the form of standardized tests and teacher generated tests. On the other hand, formative assessment is "designed to provide immediate, contextualized feedback useful for helping teacher and student during the learning process".1

Every teacher has probably used a combination of both summative and formative assessments in their classroom. With the No Child Left Behind law having such a strong emphasis on standardized testing, many upper grade educators are required to administer summative exams. Luckily, teachers of PreK-2 have the opposite problem. We almost have to engage in formative assessments because of the age of our students. Because of this, I believe teachers of lower grades should have an advantage in their skill set when using formal assessments. With the push to try to educate teachers on how to use high quality formal assessments, what better time to learn from some of the successful ways we use formal assessments in our own classroom.

First and foremost you must have a trusting environment in your classroom to help build an open forum for formative assessment. The classroom has to be a place where your student's unique characteristics and skills are nurtured, where it is safe to ask questions, where constructive criticism is taught, and where students and teachers learn from one another.

I would like to share with you a couple of the ways I use formative assessment in my own classroom.

Clear Expectations and Accountable Talk

Fortunately, the district I teach in has partnered with the University of Pittsburgh's Institute for Learning directed by Laura Resnik. The Institute's philosophy is that all students, with appropriate effort, are capable of high achievement and high-level thinking, regardless of their backgrounds. Effort-based education assumes that sustained and directed, effort yields high achievement, but can also create ability. In other words, people can become smart by working at the right kinds of learning tasks.

Following the Institute's guidelines, my students and I work as a team to set up clear expectations in our classroom. We discuss and judge each other's work with respect to the standards we set up. Intermediate and final expectations are made clear. This way there are no secrets or surprises about what makes a quality assignment. Everyone is able to contribute their ideas during this exercise, thereby learning to self assess by participating in this task.

I also teach my students accountable talk so we can support each other through the learning process. Taking the time to have conversations that emphasizes exploring our understanding creates opportunity for high quality learning. We all learn to ask open-ended questions and make comments such as:

  • I think...
  • I like...
  • I agree or disagree because...
  • What did you do to get that answer?
  • Can you show me how you did that?
  • Why do you think that?
  • Can you tell me more about that?
  • How can you prove that?
  • Who can help me understand what is being said?
  • What is important about what you are learning?
  • What have you already learned that can help you now?
  • How will knowing this information help you?
  • Can you say that in a different way?
  • Can you be more specific?
  • What did you wonder about?

Setting up clear expectations and using accountable talk easily applies to almost all lessons. Having clear expectations for assignments set students up for success and gives them a purpose for learning. It also gives the teacher and students a consistent framework to provide feedback on how to improve their work. Finally, it is wonderful way for everyone in class, including the teacher, to learn how to actively listen to each other.

Interactive Notebooks

In my classroom I use Interactive Notebooks for science, social studies and special projects. For students, an interactive notebook is a place to house, chronicle, share, learn from and self assess their work. For example, last year my students took part in a yearlong project titled "Travel Pals: A Journey for Learning".

My class sent four beloved stuffed animals on a journey around the United States. By the end of the year our Travel Pals visited over half of our country's states and my students had a notebook that documented their own learning from beginning to end.

The notebook provided a space for postcards, student created state posters, journal entries, letters to caretakers, maps, research projects, artwork, activity sheets, student captioned photographs, and more. These notebooks allowed for authentic learning; we had a purpose behind every project we tackled. And because of our interactive notebooks, we could share our work with one another, other classes, visitors to our school and our parents.

The lessons we engaged in encompassed more than geography. Keeping each students work in one place allowed me to compare, over time, my students reading and writing skills, their ability to glean and report information from educational programming, the Internet and books, their personal interests, their strengths and weaknesses when working alone, with partners or in a small group; all versions of formative assessments. Best of all, these notebooks allowed students to see and understand all of the same things so they were active participants in their own learning.

These are just two ideas that you can use and modify to your own teaching style.

By engaging in a purposeful dialogue for understanding, teaching and modeling self-reflection, first and second graders can start to build a base upon which they will grow and be responsible for their own learning. Trying some of these ideas will enhance your students' learning and better inform your end-of-unit grading.

1. Black, P., & Wiliam, D. (1998), Inside the black box: Raising standards through classroom assessment. Phi Delta Kappan, 80(2): 139-149