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How do we make assessment more like a Fitbit? Part II

In my last post, I compared my beloved Fitbit watch to the ideal assessment system. My Fitbit does formative assessment right—it runs in the background and shows me my progress toward my daily activity goals in real time, rather than giving me one report at the end of the day showing that I missed my daily step goal by 350 steps. (Darn, I should have walked around the block one more time!)


This time, I’m going to show you how it—the ideal assessment system—works in the classroom. I’ll walk you through a student activity, working with a text called Red Scarf Girl. In this memoir, author Ji-Li Jiang recounts her experiences as a middle-grade student during the cultural revolution. She arrives at school to find out that students have been asked to participate in the revolution by writing da-zi-bao, posters calling out the corrupt elements in the school.

Here’s what a common followup question in that student activity might look like:

Imagine a student put the letter “B” in the first row. If I’m the teacher, what information have I gained? What does the data show me? I know what the student knows, but not how they got there. Since I can’t see in real time what students are doing to get to their answer, I can’t support them with any particular instruction in the moment. I have evidence of their understanding, but I am not seeing the learning in action. I am measuring learning, not facilitating learning. This is summative assessment: assessment OF learning.

Don’t get me wrong—summative assessment can serve a valuable purpose. It provides an accurate measure of student proficiency, and can indicate how an individual student compares to peers. But we also are increasingly aware of the downside of these types of assessments, because they…

  • Emphasize teaching to the test
  • Take time away from instruction
  • Increase anxiety for students
  • Gloss over opportunities to build problem-solving and critical thinking skills
  • Discourage collaboration

How can we redesign activities so that we can still measure student understanding, but in a way that supports learning in real time?

Take a look at this activity:

No matter how the student answers this question, I have more information than I did before. I know how they are getting to their answer, whether it’s the correct one or not. And that is the key distinction between assessment of learning and assessment for learning:

Assessment FOR learning allows me to support a wrong answer. It allows me, and my students, to trace their mistakes.

Let’s take it a step further. Consider this activity:

As students complete the activity, they begin to get a picture of the narrator’s changing point of view. They practice key skills, and think critically. They determine the answer themselves, rather than selecting from a set of possible answers.

When students are asked to share their answers with the class, they’re challenged to discuss the evidence that led them to their answer, and to be specific about the words that showed them Ji-Li’ss feelings. They may be inspired to convince their peers to change their minds. I still get my data point, but I can clearly see what a student is thinking, through the explanation they themselves provide: I know how they’re reading the text. So, I can strategize and adjust instruction quickly, and in the moment.

Assessment FOR learning doesn’t replace your great instruction. It works alongside your instruction, and supports it.

Formative assessment done right will:

  • Happen in real time
  • Measure regularly how each student is progressing with key skills and standards
  • Allow teachers to identify needs, adjust instruction, and see impact.
  • Point to patterns over time
  • Support critical thinking

With formative assessment, you’ll see the standards in action—as part of the practice. Students can refine their answers, collaborate, and grapple with complexity. They’ll learn that there is a range of possibility—and maybe more than one right answer. And teachers will see how students are reading and understanding the text. And, perhaps most importantly, formative assessment is not a separate activity. It’s embedded within the curriculum.

Learn more about Amplify ELA assessments and how classrooms benefit from less testing and more learning, and more targeted practice.

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