November Literacy Coaching

Formative Assessment

In keeping with the theme of our last post – using assessment in meaningful ways to support student learning – this month we take a closer look at formative assessment. Although often overshadowed by the high-stakes and public accountability of district tests and state mandates, it is in its role to inform teachers and students that assessment holds its greatest power.  In fact, the most highly visible and high stakes tests are actually the least effective for monitoring students’ learning; rather, it is through classroom-based, formative assessments, that teachers and students gain the greatest insight into learning and gauge students’ progress toward acquisition of content and achievement of grade level benchmarks (Valencia, 2011). Furthermore, the ability to assess student learning during instruction is a hallmark of effective teachers and often distinguishes more effective teachers from their less effective colleagues (Athanases & Achinstein, 2003).

Given the many forms of formative assessment, we have seen teachers struggle – and have struggled ourselves – to keep organized records of student work and progress.  For this reason, we suggest the following as critical to a system of formative assessment:  1) an Informal Reading Assessment (IRI) that the teacher is comfortable using, 2) a clear conferring routine, and 3) a manageable and organized system of note-taking.

An IRI that is used to assess student progress on a regular basis, and not simply for benchmarking purposes, provides teachers with a great deal of data pertaining to student strengths and needs.  Because IRIs can be time-consuming, particularly in the older grades, frequent running records can also be taken to measure students’ progress when reading “running,” or connected, text.  In both cases, it is critical to provide training and continued support as teams of teachers work to achieve consistency in scoring and grapple with how to use the results of the assessment to inform instruction, rather than following a program or instructional sequence in lock-step fashion.

Reading and writing conferences are the means by which teachers gain insights into student learning that inform the progression of instruction.  Research supports a conference with three major components:  a short period of research, a compliment, and a teaching point (Anderson, 1999; Calkins, Ehrenworth, & Lehman, 2012).  Calkins and her colleagues (2012) have also suggested leaving an artifact behind – for example, a mentor text, a post-it note, or a quickly drawn graphic organizer – that students can refer to as they continue to do the work of the conference when the teacher has moved on to another student.  Frequent and predictable conferences also provide teachers with the opportunity to learn more through practices such as taking running records, and to problem solve alongside students while they are engaged in the work of reading and writing.

Once a conferring routine is in place – the data start to pile up!  Organizing this data may be the most important factor in whether or not teachers continue to use formative assessments in meaningful ways.  Some successful organizing techniques we have seen include using a notebook with a section tabbed for each student, creating and printing a packet with each student name on a page (with the components of the conference) for each unit of study, or taking notes on labels that later get affixed to a page in a notebook.  Whether choosing one of these, or something completely different, a routine for organizing data is essential for making formative assessment run smoothly.

We would love to hear from you!  What are your experiences with formative assessment in your school?  How well do teachers’ use formative assessment? What seems to challenge your teachers the most?

References used in this post

Anderson, C. (2001). How’s It Going? A Practical Guide to Conferring with Student
Writers. Education Review.

Athanases, S.Z. & Achinstein, B. (2003).  Focusing new teachers on individual and low
performing students. Teachers College Record, 105 (8), 1486-1520.

Calkins, L., Ehrenworth, M., & Lehman, C. (2012). Pathways to the common core:
Accelerating achievement
. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Valencia, S. (2011). Using assessment to improve teaching and learning. In S.J.

Samuels & A.E. Farstrup (Eds.), What Research Has To Say About Reading Instruction (4th edition) (pp. 379 – 405). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.




One thought on “November Literacy Coaching

  1. nancyverdolino11 says:

    You make an important point that the coach/ teacher need to devise a workable method of collecting both formative assessment/ conferring information. For classrooms I support, I create a tabbed hard cover black and white composition book for each classroom, divided into a section for each student, so it’s ready for the teacher at the beginning of the year. I found some pocketed comp. book covers which hold extra bookmarks, straight edge trackers, Post-its and pencils. I keep a class list and try to read with as many of the students as possible each week. Sometimes I use the comp. book, sometimes I jot notes on Post-its and affix them later. Often, I’ll take a running record or record miscues (to look for patterns) right in the comp. book. I may also take and analyze a running record and leave it as well.

    It’s best when the classroom teacher and I tag team the students. That way, I am not always reading with the “strugglers” and the students are less self-conscious when I come to sit by them. In the past I created two books per class (half the students in one book, half in the other) so that both the classroom teacher and I have a chance to confer/record during the independent reading slot. Often, teaching assistants and substitutes can participate. A new set of eyes always adds insight.

    This year, my Grade 4 team created a conferring binder for themselves with a section for each child and observation sheets to fill in. I find this cumbersome for me and too formal looking for the student, so I record observations/info on Post-Its, leaving the binder for the teacher’s use; here I may enter a running record as well.

    At the onset, I speak with the class as a group about setting serious reading goals and finding the best books on which to practice their goals. There are some good Youtube videos on goal setting and choosing “Just Right” books and we discuss this pretty deeply. I use the assessment data from DRA or Benchmark (and running records on my target students) to inform the goal setting process. Many teachers have taken off with this and do the goal setting before we start formally conferring.


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