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Assessment is NOT a Dirty Word

January 7, 2009


The word assessment has been getting a lot of attention in the education arena, particularly since the onset of the NCLB legislation. Results of high stakes tests have labeled and mislabeled students, schools, and even districts as high or low achieving based upon the results of such tests. Educators, parents, students, and communities have been the recipients of test score backlash which may or may not accurately represent the achievement of their student populations.  These assessments of learning, often referred to as summative assessments, act as place holders in time. They assess what students know at a particular point in time, after learning has occurred, and unfortunately, too late to make any adjustments in instruction. As schools have scrambled to address their less than acceptable scores on high stakes tests, a voice of reason has been softly sounding a more palatable kind of assessment; formative assessment.
Formative assessment has various definitions coined by well-know and respected scholars and researchers in the field of assessment. Regardless of the definition you choose to adopt, several common attributes are clearly present; formative assessments are administered frequently during a course of study, they impact changes in instruction, and they are non-threatening to the students involved in the class. They are often short, requiring little time to administer or assess. And finally, students are usually much more motivated, and engaged in their learning.
Richards Stiggins, a well-known scholar in the field of assessment research, is the key author of the book “Classroom Assessment for Student Learning.” This book and its companion materials are the foundation of the current study by the members of the Mississippi Bend Area Education Agency (AEA) Quality Learning Dept. Our journey began in August with a two-day retreat to study the core understandings, and how it relates to our current employment. Our learning is continued and expanded at each of our monthly Quality Learning Department meetings. This collaborative learning has provided all members of the Quality Learning team with the basic understandings of assessment for learning in order to support schools and districts in pursuing it as a means of improving student achievement. Although four members of the Quality Learning Department form a formative assessment team, all consultants now have the background to provide assistance to schools beginning.  
Several Area Nine school districts have taken the plunge and committed to a longer, more in-depth study of formative assessment. Louisa-Muscatine and Calamus-Wheatland, have been awarded Department of Education pilots to provide materials, funding, and Department of Education support as they move forward with using formative assessment as a means to improve student achievement. Our Quality Learning Consultants are leading this study and providing the step-by-step guidance to teachers and administrators as they implement the assessment for learning practices into their daily instructional practices. Curriculum Directors in Area Nine have also begun their study of formative assessment through their involvement in monthly CSIN meetings.
We can already see the immediate results of our work in schools as it is impacting classroom instructional practices. More importantly, we anxiously await the real desired outcome to improve student achievement. Then and only then will those high stakes assessments of learning be joyful occasions as students and educators celebrate learning.

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