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The Assessment Corner

Kathy Long, FOSS Assessment Coordinator, Lawrence Hall of Science
February 23, 2016 | Assessment

Formative assessment has become a bit of a buzzword, and like other educational terms it can come to mean many different things. In FOSS, we define formative assessment as a practice or process in which teachers are gathering information about student thinking in order to plan next instructional moves and provide feedback to improve learning. While it is important for teachers to be cruising the classroom and paying attention to what students do minute-to-minute, it's often not enough to accurately put your finger on the pulse of students' developing understanding.

While class discussion is a source of important information, we have found that teachers can leave these discussions with a false-positive sense of what learning has actually occurred. Teachers call on two or three students who can state the right answer and assume everyone has that same understanding, or if a teacher is not hearing a "right" answer, she or he will ask questions leading students to the correct answers. All this is part of good teaching, but it does not ensure that every student now understands the concept. In the ASK and FAST Projects*, we found that writing and/or drawing something about the concept in question, rather than just talking about it, provided far better evidence of student understanding. Putting their thoughts down on paper gives students another opportunity to process their thinking to determine what they actually know and what they still need practice with or what needs clarification. As one teacher from the Reflective Assessment for Elementary Science project (RAES; see more about this project later in this article) put it,

Students may look like they're learning when they aren't actually learning—I now realize that students don't learn something just because I teach it. Nodding their heads and looking interested are not necessarily indicators of learning. Asking students to write about their learning (in notebooks, RA [Reflective Assessment], exit slips, etc.) makes the learning visible to the individual student and to me. When a student can explain his/her learning in writing (and it matches the target of the lesson), then I can be confident that the intended learning took place.

*Assessing Science Knowledge (ASK) and Formative Assessment for Science through Technology (FAST) were two grants funded by the NSF that provided the research base for the assessment system now in the Third and Next Generation Editions of FOSS.

In the ASK Project, we invented the reflective assessment practice (Kennedy, Long, and Camins, 2009). This came about because we had noticed as we pored over student work in year two of the ASK Project that there were often misconceptions in notebook entries that matched those we were finding on I-Check benchmark assessments. We had gotten feedback that teachers really loved using science notebooks because it kept students' work organized, the students felt ownership of their work, and students felt more like real scientists. But when we asked the teachers how often they actually looked at the student notebooks for formative assessment purposes (so they could modify instruction as needed), they sadly shook their heads and admitted almost never. "We don't have time to read them," was their universal explanation. Teachers' general impression was that reading the notebooks would take several hours to evaluate all students' entries. When we asked them how long they would be willing to spend each day, they said, "Ten minutes." So we embarked on a little side study to see if spending only 10 minutes looking at student work could make a difference. The result of this study was that 10 minutes can make a BIG difference!

Results from the FAST/ASK Projects. Students whose teachers used formative assessment regularly achieved significantly more.

Results from the FAST/ASK Projects. Students whose teachers used formative assessment regularly achieved significantly more.

The Reflective Assessment for Elementary Science (RAES) Project

In 2011, we were approached by Cory Forbes, a professor in the College of Education at the University of Iowa. He was interested in using our reflective assessment practice in the professional development project (RAES) he was putting together with Grant Wood AEA (an educational service agency that serves schools in several eastern Iowa counties). In 2012, the project was funded by the Iowa Board of Regents. The project focused on increasing teachers' content knowledge and scientific practices as well as formative assessment. For the remainder of this article, I will focus on the results of the reflective assessment practice (formative assessment), even though you could argue that content knowledge, scientific practices, and formative assessment are so tightly interwoven in teaching that it is hard to separate them.

The RAES project was structured so that teachers met seven days over three summers to work on content knowledge, practices, and formative assessment techniques, preparing for a focus module each year (earth, life, or physical science for that year), then met two Saturdays during the school year and 12 times in CTLs (Collaborative Learning Teams) that were facilitated by professional developers from Grant Wood AEA. The 35 teachers who participated in the project were very dedicated educators and provided a wealth of teaching expertise that helped us learn how to support teachers in developing formative assessment practices. This support must be manageable, given teachers' busy schedules, as well as worthwhile for them to use in other subject areas and share with other teachers.

Here is the reflective assessment practice in a nutshell. Note that the teacher spends only 10 minutes reviewing student work for the whole class.

Reflective Assessment Cycle

FOSS provides support for each of these steps. To anticipate, you look at the Getting Ready section of an investigation part. An embedded formative assessment is suggested for each part. To teach the lesson, you use information in Guiding the Investigation, including What to Look For, after students turn in their written formative assessment work. To review and reflect on student work, you collect notebooks open to the page students have written on. You spend 10 minutes after class looking at as many samples of their work as you can, collecting observational data to determine trends and patterns of thinking for the class—what students understand and what clarification they may need.

Finally, you adjust the instruction. This may be as simple as carrying this information into the next day's lesson, and taking time to clarify as needed when students address similar concepts in that lesson. Or it may mean taking five minutes at the beginning of class to have the class participate in a next-step strategy to help them reflect on their thinking and to clarify possible misconceptions that may be developing. (For more information about the reflective assessment practice, see the Assessment Chapter in any grade 3–8 FOSS module.)

Through the hard work of the teachers and RAES staff, we learned important lessons. Here are the four points that I think are most important in order to fully implement formative assessment through reflective assessment practice.

  1. Belief systems. In order to see any value in using formative assessment, you must believe deeply that intelligence is malleable. Much work on this has been done by Stanford University professor Carol Dweck and her graduate students. If we believe that students are stuck with a particular amount of intelligence, then there is no point in using formative assessment to help students improve; it won't help. Given a growth mindset (teachers and students) it is hard work, perseverance, and constant feedback that bolsters students' achievement, and reflective assessment is a practice that helps make that happen.

  2. Giving students agency. "Who's doing the talking? Who is doing the thinking?" I still hear the echoes of the voice of Arthur Camins, FAST Project Co-PI, repeatedly asking these important questions. Part of the success of formative assessment is making students an intimate and proactive part of the system. Assessment can't be something that is done to students, it must be something in which they play the biggest part. It's their learning after all that is at stake. And surprising to many, students greatly value the opportunity to have more control over their own learning. They actually put more effort into their learning as classroom culture changes and they find that making a mistake doesn't mean you're not smart. It simply means you don't know it yet. Practice, clarification through student discourse, and teacher's next-step strategies can all help students get to the learning goal they are approaching.

    My biggest aha about formative assessment is that the assessments are not just for me. They are also for the students, and that self/peer assessment can be more powerful for the students than receiving adult feedback.

    —RAES Teacher

    Students need to be directly engaged in the learning process…the importance of students actually thinking about their thinking and the need to create the time daily to allow students to do this.

    —RAES Teacher

  3. Ten minutes? How can you possibly learn anything in that short amount of time? Many teachers find it hard to believe that only 10 minutes for the whole class is going to be worth anything—so they never try it. But we have shown time and again that 10 minutes can make a big difference. And it not only makes a difference in terms of student achievement, it makes a difference in a teacher's confidence that she or he is doing a good job of teaching. Teachers have a much better idea about what the students are taking away from the lessons, and the review time provides valuable information for building their own instructional expertise, for this year and next.

  4. It's hard to stick to 10 minutes for the class. True! Looking at student work is extremely enticing when you are really trying to dig in and understand what students are thinking. So you have to limit yourself to 10 minutes by setting a timer and training yourself to stop! There is a bit of a learning curve to this too. Getting the most out of your 10 minutes means you have to limit your focus, be very clear about what you are looking for (check out the What to Look For sections in the Investigations Guides), and not worry about spelling, grammar, etc. The more you do it, the more you learn to look for the salient points that will help you determine what next instructional steps will be needed. You just have to trust us, for now, that you can learn a lot from that mere 10 minutes and that our research has shown that it makes a big difference in students' achievement.

RAES teachers Chad Hipp en and Bethany Bombei focus on next-step strategies.

RAES teachers Chad Hippen and Bethany Bombei focus on next-step strategies.


The RAES project was a great success for the teachers involved in the project and their students. I'd like to thank all those who participated in the project for their insights and continuing enthusiasm. Several teachers have gone on to do workshops and mentor other teachers in their schools and districts. A special thanks goes to the folks who worked directly with the teachers so faithfully: Jeanne Bancroft, Christopher Soldat, Erica Larson, and Mark Brockmeyer. Special thanks, too, to Leslie Flynn who took over the university's role in the project when Cory was called to the University of Nebraska, and Cathy Kennedy who was our external evaluator and provided valuable feedback and advice throughout the project. And last but not least, thanks to the graduate students who helped with some of the analysis and kept all the data well organized: Mandy Biggers, Jaime Sabel, and Ashley Hansen.


  • Kennedy, C., Long, K., & Camins, A. (2009). The reflective assessment technique: A new way of evaluating in-class student work. Science and Children, 50–53.
  • Kennedy, C. (2009). Reflective Assessment for Elementary Science in Iowa: Year 3 Summative Evaluation Report. Submitted to the Iowa State Board of Regents.