Schrodinger’s Kid, or, Why Formative Assessment Matters

Shrodinger’s cat is a paradox that I cannot claim to totally understand, but for the purposes of this post, it’s a thought experiment/paradox that says that a cat in a box with poison, which could be either alive or dead, is simultaneously both alive and dead until you check, when it becomes one or the other.  Something like that.  It involves quantum mechanics.  And you can go ahead and try to explain it better in the comments if you like!

No, I do not want you to put any of your students in a box with a flask of poison.  But I do want you to look in the box.  As I explained in Nobody’s Teaching if Nobody’s Learning, you can’t stand up in front of your students talking, or give them things to do that keep them occupied, and claim it’s teaching.  It doesn’t count if being in your class that day didn’t somehow change their skills or knowledge or academic dispositions.  But how do you know if they’re learning?  Until you check, it’s Shrodinger’s kid: you have to assume they’re all learning and not learning until you check.  And you don’t want to wait too long to look in the box, or you might find out they haven’t been learning at all.

This is the essence of formative assessment.  People often contrast summative and formative assessment by saying one is assessment of learning while the other is assessment for learning.  Honestly, it’s kind of misleading to even call them the same noun.  Summative assessment is basically testing; formative assessment might be more transparently called checking for understanding, and it should be completely woven in with the daily work of teaching and learning.

In her classic article “Formative Assessment: An Enabler of Learning,” Margaret Heritage explains the key traits of formative assessment:

  • It’s related to a learning objective.  You’re checking kids’ understanding of what they’re supposed to be learning, and trying to uncover the root of any problems you see.
  • It’s on-going.  You should be doing it all the time.  That doesn’t mean you’re giving quizzes–it means you’re trying to listen to your kids and understand their thinking at least as much as you’re making them listen to you.
  • It informs instruction.  You need to take the information about your kids’ learning and use it to change your instruction–to reteach a point (to everyone or just a few people), to find a new way to explain, to cut out something that’s too easy, to know when to move on.

Formative instruction should also involve the kids.  Ideally, they’re self-assessing along the way.  Kids need to learn how to notice when they do or do not understand, and when to ask questions.  Kids can also give feedback to their peers, though they have to be trained on how to do it tactfully and usefully (a topic for another post).  Finally, and this is most important: as you are checking kids’ understanding, you need to give them feedback that includes guidance about what and how to improve.  Just as you need to know how your kids are doing, they need to know how they’re doing, so they can be involved in making sure they master the learning goals.

How do you formatively assess students?  Here are just a handful of ways:

  • Have one kid read to you and think about if the book is a good match for the kid.  If there’s a problem, what is it?
  • Ask a kid to show you where in his writing he applied a lesson you taught–e.g. “Show me where you used transition words to help your reader follow your argument.  How did you know to put one there?”
  • Give kids a discussion topic–ideally, something without a fixed answer, or at least not a clear one–and then listen in to who says what.  Take notes on any misunderstandings you’re seeing.
  • For short-answer kinds of questions (e.g. “What’s an antonym for ‘clever’?”, “Who was the main character of this book?”), have all your kids write their answers on personal white boards and hold them up at once.  Then you can quickly see who knows what antonym or main character mean, and who still needs help.

Here’s one example: A first-grade teacher is working with a small group on the a_e spelling.  After giving a blending lesson, where all the students read a set of words chorally, the teacher has each student come up to the board and choose two words to read and erase.  Before they can erase, they must look at their peers for approval of their reading.  Karina comes up and reads “name” correctly, eliciting thumbs-up from all her peers.  She then reads “cap” for “cape.”  Three students give the sign for disagreement, but Keonte shows a thumbs up.  Ms. March can see that three of the students seem (so far) to be solid on a_e, but that both Karina and Keonte need a reminder.  “Karina, you said cap.  You made the short a sound.  Who can give a letter hint?”  Michael offers, “a_e says ay” and Luz says, “the e makes the a say its name.”  Karina then reads “cape” and everyone, including Keonte, gives a thumbs up.

The point is, your checks for understanding should relate to your learning goals, inform your instruction, and give information to kids on how they’re doing and how to improve.  Open that box and see what they know!


P.S. Check out this great video of Margaret Heritage talking about the importance of getting to know your ELLs in order to teach them properly.  It’s just 2 minutes!

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Ingrid O'Brien

I am a literacy consultant, doctoral candidate, and educator living in the San Francisco Bay Area. I specialize in the language and literacy development of bilingual children, particularly ELLs in the Common Core. I coach teachers, design & adapt curricula for ELLs, and organize intervention programs.

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