Vail Valley Voices: A new strategy |

Vail Valley Voices: A new strategy

Dr. Sandra Smyser

The educational landscape is constantly evolving, challenging educators to think differently about the teaching and learning process. No longer is it the norm for a teacher to stand at the front of the classroom discussing a certain subject matter and assuming students have adequately grasped what was discussed. No longer is it appropriate to expect students are learning concepts and demonstrating their knowledge by doing well on an exam. Teachers and students must be engaged in the process together, which is why Eagle County schools has chosen to focus on the Formative Assessment Process for the 2010-11 school year.

The district carefully selected one high-leverage, district-wide improvement strategy to focus on this year, based on processes teachers use that are proven to raise student achievement.

Contrary to the name, the Formative Assessment Process is not a test. Instead, it is “an active and intentional learning process that partners the teacher and the students to continuously and systematically gather evidence of learning with the express goal of improving student achievement.” When used effectively, the Formative Assessment Process has the power to increase student achievement and enhance the quality of a teacher.

How does the Formative Assessment Process work? To begin with, the teacher clearly defines the learning target and criteria for success. Each student then makes his or her first attempt at the assignment. Subsequently, the teacher provides the student with feedback (versus an actual final grade) and the student then makes another attempt (and so on) until they’ve received the grade for which they were striving. Not everything in the classroom is done this way, just major concepts or projects.

In essence, the student understands the goal, produces the work, compares the work with the goal originally set, evaluates strengths and weaknesses and plans for what to do better next time. Students should consistently take stock of where their work is in relation to that goal and take action to move closer to that goal.

This is a completely new way of thinking. Traditionally, criteria are set for the student, the student carries out the assignment or the project and the teacher provides the student with a final grade, with no opportunity for improvement.

As a district, we are collectively learning how to use the Formative Assessment Process. Teachers have been experimenting with the process and found both successes and challenges along the way.

For example, Battle Mountain High School has been on the cutting edge of the process by changing its grading policies and cutting out grades that do not reflect academic progress, including extra credit, participation opportunities and acknowledging special efforts. Similar to other schools across the district, Battle Mountain teachers are beginning to allow students multiple opportunities to show mastery, showing the shift from a philosophy of “if” students learn to “when” students learn. In addition, homework scores are minimal, as most of the grades are from major assessments.

As a result of the Formative Assessment Process, Battle Mountain has seen significant numbers of students taking advantage of reassessment opportunities. Students are beginning to take more ownership and accountability for their own success.

And in another example, an instructional coach walked into Red Hill Elementary School recently and the first thing she heard was a teacher asking students how they would know they were going to be successful today. Apparently, this is a common question asked in Red Hill classrooms, showing that teachers are making expectations clear and students are responding.

Parents, how can you participate in the process? Engage in conversation with your child’s teacher, and be aware of which assignments your students will have multiple attempts on. Assist your child as he or she works through these opportunities to improve the work and help engross him or her in the process.

Through the Formative Assessment Process, we can all work together to be more actively involved in the education of our children.

Dr. Sandra Smyser is the superintendent of the Eagle County School District.

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