Supporting Student Learning through CCSS-aligned Formative Assessment

As districts and states begin to prioritize and structure their roll out of Common Core State Standards (CCSS), they are also looking at how to implement formative assessments to capture and understand specific CCSS-aligned shifts in learning. These shifts include, for example, students’ ability to do critical thinking and evidence building through close reading of materials, logic and inquiry.

One example of formative assessment in action is at the San Francisco Unified School District, where performance tasks and constructed response items have recently been added to interim assessments to measure complex skills and conceptual understanding, in line with the requirements of the new standards. These assessments, which are administered three times per year, will be used by teachers to inform ongoing instruction. Another example is the Collegiate Academies network of schools in New Orleans, which is currently integrating formative, CCSS-aligned constructed response items into their assessment tools and practices.

Formative assessments can play a critical role in shaping instruction and improving learning outcomes. Practitioners and researchers alike have found that the use of assessment data informs what students know, what misunderstandings they have, and how they approach and work through problems. One study, which compared teachers across school districts, revealed that those who used data from performance task items to inform instruction in their math classes showed more dramatic increases in student achievement than their teacher counterparts who did not use these data.

To assist teachers in the collection of these data, two organizations are gearing up to offer formative assessment systems. The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), for example, will soon debut non-summative, diagnostic testing tools for grades K-12. Anticipated to be available in the 2015-16 school year, the PARCC formative assessment tools are designed to be embedded in CCSS-aligned curriculum, gathering information about student progress within the natural learning process. The Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) is also developing formative assessment tools, using computer adaptive testing technologies to challenge students to apply what they’ve learned from CCSS-aligned material to real-world problems.

As these and other new assessments are put into place, and the resulting data are generated, it will be important to provide support for teachers in using the data to interpret learning and make ongoing pedagogical decisions. Research on data use, conducted by ISKME, and others, has shown that the most effective models of data use emphasize iterative cycles of teacher interpretation, analysis, and application of data toward instructional changes. To that end, coaching, mentoring, and an instilled leadership culture around data use can be critical.

We need to learn from these early attempts to implement formative assessments to understand what really works for teachers and students. Ideally, as new CCSS-aligned formative assessments become available—with data in-hand, and research outlining best practices—teachers will have more informed ways of revising their instruction and engaging students around the new standards. 

August 16, 2013