Imagining Possibilities in EdTech: Formative Assessment

By Jack West
Creative Commons flickr Photos by Matt Wright (top) and JISC infoNet (bottom)

This is the third in a series of posts about what the traditional classroom could look like with already available and nearly available edtech. The first post explored lesson planning. The second explored lesson content delivery.

The author, Jack C West, is a National Board certified, public high school science teacher in Redwood City, California. He has been applying new edtech in the traditional classroom for 15 years both as an International Baccalaureate teacher and as an at-risk youth program director. He co-founded a non-profit that is developing freely available, misconception-rooted, research-based, formative assessment questions that inspire critical thinking for middle and high school students.

First, a primer: when a student takes a test or writes a paper at the end of a unit of study, if that test or paper is graded and used as a component of that student’s overall grade in the course, we call this summative assessment. When students take standardized tests, as they must do in every academic subject at the end of every school year in high school, this is also considered summative assessment. The latter is often referred to as high-stakes testing because it can determine course placement for the student during the next school year, and it most certainly is a component of the school’s accountability metric under the current incarnation of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act known as No Child Left Behind.

Formative assessment is less discrete. Formative assessment, as the root of the word suggests, is used to assist in informing the instructive and learning processes. Formative assessments provide educators with ongoing feedback that shapes instruction both for individual students and for the class as a whole. Socratic questioning is a formative assessment. Looking over a student’s shoulder as they attempt a practice problem during class is another type of formative assessment. It is low stakes, and purely motivated by the desire on behalf of the teacher to be responsive to his or her students’ needs.

Taking the Clicker into the Cloud
Student response systems, or “clickers,” gained popularity in college classrooms at the turn of the 21st century. K-12 followed shortly thereafter. The clicker provides an instructor with immediate feedback, in the form of a histogram or chart, on student responses to a question. With the growth of one-to-one device ratios in high school, the clicker is quickly becoming obsolete. Poll Everywhere allows an instructor to get instant feedback from his or her audience in the same way the clicker does with the added bonus of accepting text input. Students with any kind of mobile phone can submit responses that can be previewed, aggregated, and then projected (in a separate window if two screens are enabled) by an instructor.

Other edtech teams are working to augment the virtual clicker experience with multiple types of input and output that make it easier for both teachers and students to learn what the class does and does not understand. Eric Mazur, grandfather of Peer Instruction, recently incorporated Learning Catalytics, a start-up that promises to deliver the clicker-peer instruction experience from the cloud. Socrative, created by another team of stacked education researchers, has already delivered the clicker to the cloud with a variety of useful formative assessment modes that can be channeled through any web-enabled device.

Intelligent and Actionable Analytics
Data schmata! If all teachers get from the analytics platform provided to them by their district is a glorified spreadsheet of standardized test scores for their students, then all they will produce is the useless chart they are required to put in the school accreditation visit folder. Coming soon will be actionable, real-time analytics that work not only with the (almost useless) bubble test data provided to districts by each state, but also with teacher and administrator input on an ongoing basis.

Eduvant promises to sit atop a school’s various data systems and cull the most important and actionable information for all stakeholders in the ecosystem, and serve it to them in a digestible daily newsfeed. Junyo (being hatched by the forces behind Zynga), and Onsophic (incubated by a team of seasoned SV educator entrepreneurs) are working on analytics platforms that provide formative assessment of student performance in user-friendly environments for the K-12 and post secondary environments, respectively.

Teachers can anticipate that they will be able to walk around their classroom during a kick-off exercise, tablet in hand, and have digestible information about the performance and specific sticking points of the students in their midst. Imagine tying this to near field communication tags on their desks. This would give a whole new meaning to the concept of heat maps!

Behavior Management Gamified
Nothing happens in a poorly managed classroom. And there is no edtech intervention that will ever outdo an assertive, well-respected teacher. ClassDojo may just make that teacher’s job a little easier, if not a little more fun. By gamifying class behavior with adorable snaggle-toothed avatars, the ClassDojo team has seen adoption rates that outpace even Edmodo.

We Cease To Be a Democracy Without Strong Education in Argumentation
Class loads in excess of 150 students make assessing student writing in a meaningful way a daunting task. For schools without the resources to outsource the grading to humans, there is help. Eduify makes the writing process social, crowd sourcing the help everyone needs when refining their argument. Essaytagger may not bring in the troops, but the tool certainly cuts down on the time a teacher must spend spilling red ink in the margins. Paperrater brings to bear much of the best current technology in grammatical, and lexical analysis to provide students and teachers with feedback that does not require a doctorate of philosophy.

Hold your breath for the Holy Grail of robot graders, though. The Hewlett foundation recently announced that they will award a prize to the team that improves the state of the art in A.W.E. (automated writing evaluation). I heard rumor that Siri has thrown her hat in the ring.

If there is such thing as a consensus in education, it is this: the most significant factor influencing the quality of education is the capability of the teacher. Great teachers assess student work deeply and frequently. The currently available and nearly available edtech may just make that assessment a little more frequent, if not, a little deeper.


> Read more of Jack's posts on his personal blog, chronicling edtech in high school.


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