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Getting Started with Performance Assessment: Advice from a Practitioner

Dr. Karin Hess is a highly respected field expert in the design of performance and formative assessment. CCE had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Hess, about her instruction and assessment work. Karin generously shared about her current projects, the journey so far, and where her work is headed in the future. Today we share Part I of a two-part feature from our interview with Dr. Hess.

CCE: Good Morning, Karin. Thank you so much for joining us today to share a little about your work. We know your schedule is always full, so we’ll jump right in! Let’s start by establishing a shared definition—what is formative assessment and how do you define it in your work?

Karin Hess (KH): Formative assessment is assessment to inform learning and instruction. These assessments can include anything from a probing question to a performance task. Some formative assessments are planned ahead of time, and others are created on the spot during the flow of the lesson.

Formative assessment is used to figure out what the students know right now and how can I—the teacher—help them move forward with their understanding. It’s not intended to be used for a grade; it’s just to tell you at any point in time where students are in their learning and what they need next to move them forward.

If formative assessment tells you that students don’t know something, you teach them that something. You should not hold it against them that they didn’t know that content yet. I think that’s a big misconception. Sometimes you hear of people giving grades for formative assessments or there are requirements to give so many formative assessments in a marking period. That would be counter to its purposes.

CCE: We live in an education culture where grades are given such importance…How does a teacher measure competence in a formative assessment without giving a grade?

KH: As the teacher thinks about what the goal of the learning is, or what proficiency looks like, the teacher might come up with one or two good questions. I call these probing questions because they are going to get at what the student does or does not know. These questions “uncover” student thinking, not simply check for understanding. The evidence of proficiency might be a verbal response, a visual artifact, a written piece, or an observable presentation of skills. Based on that evidence, the teacher (or even the student) decides how close is the student to the intended learning target? That is how you determine whether a student has met an objective or is missing some important understanding.

One of the things I ask teachers to look for in a good formative assessment is what are some possible common misunderstandings you might uncover with this assessment? So the teacher is anticipating what students might struggle with. When you anticipate possible misconceptions, you’ll be able to identify them and plan the next steps for instruction based on the evidence elicited with the formative assessment.

CCE: What is the relationship between formative and summative assessments?

KH: I like to think of formative assessments as smaller steps to get to the summative assessment. When a teacher is designing a unit of study, they start by saying “what’s the end learning target?”

Here’s a concrete example: Let’s say I want students to be able to write an essay that’s an argumentative essay using text evidence. That’s my summative assessment--my performance task. Now I think back to what might be the initial formative assessment to find out if students know what an argument is, and if they know how to use text evidence; so the smaller pieces of that larger summative assessment are going to give me good information about students applying a deeper understanding applied to a more complex task. 

I’ve heard a visual metaphor that I like for this: think about a stream with stepping stones and you’re trying to get to the other side. Well, the other side of the stream is where the summative assessment is but going from stepping stone to stepping stone might be connecting those smaller pieces—practicing those smaller pieces and refining your thinking about how those pieces fit together—before you’re ready to do that summative assessment. I like to use the first formative assessment as my pre-assessment; “what do the students know now that I can build upon to get to that final goal?”

CCE: Can formative assessment be used across all subject areas? 

KH: Absolutely. I think because of the Common Core, there’s so much attention given to ELA and Math that other subjects are somewhat forgotten. Any way teachers can think about this work would benefit students in all content areas. I’m also a big advocate of performance assessments that cross—or integrate content areas!

This concludes Part I of the interview with Karin Hess. Part II of the interview will be posted on Monday, May 16.

*Note. This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

Click here to read Karin’s blog post on effective formative assessment.  

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