Formative Assessment and the Iceberg Problem

The Unfulfilled Promise of Formative Assessment

I still remember the first time I heard the term “assessment.” It was the new teacher orientation for my first teaching job. The principal explained how many assessments we were required to give each quarter. He emphasized the importance of advance notice, study guides, and parent notifications. Formative assessment wasn’t even a part of the conversation.

I leaned over to the teacher in the next seat and asked, “What are assessments?”

“You know, tests and quizzes. They’re your grades.”

The message was clear: our responsibility was to accurately rate our students. To protect ourselves from claims of favoritism or neglect, we needed a paper trail.

I was bewildered by the complexity and nuances. Wasn’t grading just a necessary evil? I had assumed school leadership would be emphasizing relationships with students and engaging lessons. And the idea that we might be called upon to defend our grades against skeptics was a complete shock.

But I learned quickly. Grading would help me tell the super stars from the mediocre scholars. I should expect all students to vie for the top spots. And I needed to ensure that I awarded those spots in a fair and transparent manner.

The Promise of Formative Assessment

Fortunately, a lot has changed in decades since my first teaching position. Assessment is no longer just used to evaluate student performance after units of study. Formative assessment is a two-step process. First, we figure out what students know and wht they don’t. Then, we adapt instruction based on what the assessments tell us about student needs.

A teacher may need to repeat a topic that students didn’t understand the first time. She may need to speed up, slow down, or use different strategies for different learners. (This idea has led to the infamous — and persistent — “learning styles” mythology.)

The term “formative assessment” was first used by Michael Scriven in 1967. As with many education initiatives, the idea has a solid rationale. It also has the potential to improve the quality of teaching and learning in schools.

But the term has often been misunderstood. Even with the best of intentions, formative assessment is tough to implement. It only works if teachers have the freedom to adapt to the results of assessments. But in most schools, curriculum planning focuses on pacing guides and standardized tests.

Grades become part of a student’s record that will open doors to future opportunities — or slam those doors in their faces.

It’s quite common for teachers to be told to use assessment to guide instruction. And at the same time, they’re expected to remain in lock-step with a school or district pacing guide.

To fulfill the promise of formative assessment, educators must address some common challenges:

  • Understand the difference between formative and summative assessments, and when to use each.
  • Ensure assessments go beyond grade level content to identify underlying gaps in understanding.
  • Create curriculum plans with the flexibility to adjust to student needs.

Formative or Summative?

One common challenge is confusion around the definition of formative assessment. Broadly speaking, any assessment that informs instructional decisions is formative. A summative assessment is an evaluation, conducted after the learning has ended.

But it can be challenging to distinguish between formative and summative assessments. Many researchers believe that formative assessments should not be graded. They argue that putting a grade on an assignment means it no longer emphasizes growth.

Meanwhile, educators in schools understand that grades are the currency of the classroom. Anyone with teaching experience knows how often students ask “does this count for a grade?” It’s how students ask whether or not they should make an effort. Some teachers see the question as a sign that students aren’t focused on learning. I take it to mean that students have learned to navigate the system we created.

Some educators are shocked to learn that I grade group process. Until they try it with their own students. I’ve coached several teachers who truly believed their students weren’t capable of collaboration. Once they began using a rubric for group process grades, students suddenly learned to work together.

The assessment debate highlights fundamental issues around grading in schools. Grades play multiple roles, which are often at odds with one another.

If grades are tools to help students understand their own progress, can we also use them for high-stakes reporting? For grades to motivate students, shouldn’t they reflect effort rather than achievement? If they’re to help educators understand student needs, should we even share them with parents and students?

All Assessment is Formative

Our current grading system puts stakeholders at odds with one another. Students and parents pressure teachers for higher grades. Teachers want to be supportive, but also need to be fair and accurate. Administrators get caught in the middle. And the strife is understandable. Grades become part of a student’s record that will open doors to future opportunities — or slam those doors in their faces.

As soon as we attach grades to one measure of learning, it sends a clear signal about what we value. Tests are important, but class discussions aren’t. Papers matter, but group work and public speaking don’t.

Not only is this unfair, it’s inauthentic. This is why grades so often fail to predict real world success. Great leaders, artists and public speakers get no credit. Memorizers and test-takers thrive in school, only to discover that the job market places little to no value on such skills.

Our grading system also sends confusing signals about consistent effort. Every job I’ve ever had valued the quality of my work day-in and day-out. Sure, some days were bigger than others, but I never felt like one or two hours a month meant more than the rest combined. Yet this is how we measure students. And then we wonder why many take a careless approach until the day before a big test.

Schools that are truly committed to prioritizing feedback over grades should just stop grading altogether. It’s well known that grades boost motivation in the short term, while hurting intrinsic motivation.

Until schools are ready to drop grades, all assessment should be considered both formative and summative. In other words, everything counts. And everything helps teachers make future instructional decisions.

The Iceberg Problem

The “iceberg problem” arises when assessments take a narrow view of student understanding. A typical unit test tells us what percent of content a student has mastered. But it tells us nothing about why a student is having difficulty.

If our goal is to evaluate students, this system works. Billy got 65% of the questions right on the test. Yesenia got 98% right. Clearly, Yesenia knows more than Billy on this topic.

But this information offers little help for targeting support. If Billy did all his homework during the unit, what went wrong? He likely had gaps from prior grade levels. Try as he might, the material just didn’t make sense.

It’s even more complicated if Billy didn’t do his homework. It’s easy to point to the missing homework as the cause of the problem. But just as often, his skill gaps were also the reason he didn’t do his homework.

If we target instruction based on his mistakes, we merely chip away at the tip of the iceberg. With enough scaffolding, we can even make him appear proficient. This approach allows schools to pass students from grade to grade, without ever addressing skill gaps.

And what about Yesenia? Do we just give her gold stars all year for being great? When does she take a test that truly challenges her? Why did she miss 2% of the questions?

The Sliding-Scale of Proficiency

To truly address student needs, we need to measure proficiency across grade levels. Teachers can work backward from grade level content until they find the level at which the student is proficient. Digital adaptive assessments are useful tools for this purpose.

Consider a student struggling with a grade 6 ratio and proportion standard. “Use ratio language and notation for multiplicative comparisons.” This requires an understanding of fractions developed in grades 3 through 5. Students first learn to understand fractions as parts of a whole. Ratios introduce the idea of fractions of a group. So you can have 3/5 of a class be girls, or have four geese to every three ducks in a group of seven.

If a student doesn’t understand a fraction as parts of a whole, scaffolding the 6th grade skill isn’t enough. We have to start where the student is proficient.

Unfortunately, few teachers have access to this type of “sliding-scale” data. Let alone the instructional resources to target gaps from prior grade levels. Effective curriculum planning can help schools develop better assessments. Data specialists can help schools gather and interpret data to better understand students’ needs.

The One-Bridge Problem

Schools that can identify gaps in student understanding still face challenges addressing those gaps. Most schools use an educational model based on curriculum coverage.

Each state has a list of standards that should be covered in each class and grade level. To ensure teachers address each standard, schools create curriculum maps and pacing guides. Teachers then move their classes through each standard at a set pace.

While more educators recognize the limitations of the industrial model of education, few practical solutions exist.

Large class sizes, standardized tests, and textbooks are all consistent with this model. All support teaching every student the same material, at the same pace, and in the same way.

While more educators recognize the limitations of the industrial model of education, few practical solutions exist. To make formative assessment a reality, we have to admit it isn’t consistent with a content coverage approach. Some education leaders suggest that “scaffolding” offers a solution. The idea is that teachers provide extra support to struggling learners, without slowing the rest of the class down. It’s a nice idea, but I haven’t actually seen it work in a school setting.

Imagine 25 people running a marathon – some start at mile 22, others at mile 13 or mile 0. Some are faster than others. The motivation and focus of the runners varies widely as well. Your job is to ensure everyone crosses each mile marker at the same time.

formative assessment and the content coverage marathonThe Three-Bridges Approach

The Three-Bridges Design for Learning is a practical way to balance differentiation and coverage. Instead of relying on one “bridge,” instructional time is divided into three categories.

Bridge 1: Curriculum Coverage

The 3-bridges approach recognizes the role of curriculum coverage in addressing standards. But instead of using this model all the time, a 3-bridges classroom includes multiple models.

Before schools can implement student-centered teaching methods, they need to find time in the schedule. With custom curriculum plans, schools can increase the efficiency of their coverage. Effective plans can cover a year of standards in 80% of instructional days or less. The remaining 20% is dedicated to personalized or inquiry-based learning.

Bridge 2: Personalized Learning

With personalized learning, students learn at their own level and pace. Technology finally makes it possible to identify and target individual student needs. Online platforms can also provide student data to teachers, parents, and school leaders.

But personalized learning isn’t just about technology. For learning to be personalized, students should have input into their learning goals. As students take on ownership, teachers shift into a facilitative role.

Bridge 3: Inquiry-Based Learning

Personalized learning changes the pace of learning, but inquiry-based learning goes a step further. IBL challenges traditional ideas about how students learn and about what they learn. 

Teaching through inquiry means that instead of giving students information, educators pose questions. Good IBL prompts have more than one correct answer. Different students employ different approaches. Since each student learns something unique, it is harder to align IBL to content standards.

The benefit is that what students learn, they learn deeply. IBL allows them to develop conceptual understanding and problem-solving skills.

This approach lends itself well to games and group activities. Students who learn through inquiry tend to be more engaged.

They also find more joy in learning. IBL helps develop social-emotional skills, such as collaboration, communication, and responsibility.

By taking a gradual approach, educators can explore innovative models while building on their strengths. Some schools begin by replacing one period of content coverage a week with personalized learning. Others shift from occasional use of active learning to more consistent and intentional IBL. Lectures gradually shift from being a daily staple to being one instructional model among many.

Fulfilling the Promise

Formative assessment can, and should, play a crucial role in student-centered learning.  For formative assessment to work, all stakeholders must reconsider assumptions about learning.

School leaders can help by giving teachers the flexibility to respond to assessments. They should also provide professional development and resources that support formative assessment. Curriculum plans need to go beyond textbooks and focus on student needs.

Students and parents play a critical role in making formative assessment work. Some educators are reluctant to change, for fear of how stakeholders will respond. Schools need to proactively communicate the value of formative assessment and growth mindset. Students shouldn’t see assessments as a measure of their worth, or as a competition with peers. When they do, teachers feel pressure to boost grades rather than assess accurately.

With a little creativity, and support from stakeholders, formative assessment can be a powerful tool. Educators who use it well can effectively support students with diverse learning needs. 

Creativity, Collaboration, and Conceptual Learning

Looking for more ways to make formative assessment work for you and your students? You’ll find more stories and strategies like this one in our weekly Educator’s Newsletter.

You can also join innovative educators from around the world in our Facebook community. We’re dedicated to bringing creativity, collaboration, and conceptual learning to every student, in every classroom.



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