written by Todd Beach
special thanks to Randy Bailey

“I could barely understand what the professor was talking about but I was very impressed… I thought teaching was a simple matter of telling the class what you knew and then testing them and giving them grades.  Now I was learning how complicated the life of a teacher could be….” (McCourt, 2005:41)[1]

In my recent post, ‘Teaching Students How to Write’, some colleagues articulated skepticism regarding the process used in teaching students writing skills, while others had questions about the validity and reliability of student’s grades since they were provided additional opportunities to correct the deficiencies in their writing.  I’d like to address both of these concerns and provide evidence, which defends the practice.

Formative assessment, which some researchers refer to as “assessment for learning,” has emerged as a powerful means to provide teachers with information about the student’s learning and to involve and empower the student in their learning.    This focus on the process of learning combined with the product can inform teaching practice.  The aim should be to find a balance of assessment FOR learning, (formative assessment) and assessment OF learning (summative assessment).  Indeed, this ‘balance’ should perhaps weigh heavier toward the side of formative assessment in practice.

Teachers’ understanding and skill in facilitating formative assessment during instruction is essential to student achievement.  Formative assessment can inform teachers when to move on to another concept, when to ask more questions, when to provide more examples, and determine which responses to student questions are most appropriate.  This frequent feedback loop between teacher and student is at the core of good teaching and learning and within the frequent feedback loop, classroom assessments provide some of the best opportunities to move learning forward and to create scholarship.  Indeed, as a result of reviewing almost 8,000 studies, researcher John Hattie (1992) made the following comment: “The most powerful single modification that enhances achievement is feedback.  The simplest prescription for improving education must be ‘dollops of feedback’ ” (p. 9).[2]

In ‘Teaching Students How to Write’, I explained the process used in helping my ninth grade students practice and develop their writing skills.  Within this process, students were informed of the scoring criteria and were provided the essay prompt in advance of the exercise.  The students and I spent time in advance of writing examining possible structures for the essay as well as examining exemplar essays which were written to address a different prompt.  The purpose of examining the exemplars was so that students could have an understanding of the expectation – to see all that goes into writing a thoughtful and critical essay.

There is more to this process but I believe one of the most essential practices is teaching students how to peer assess and provide informative feedback which helps the writer better understand what they have done well and what they can do better.  This practice of peer assessment is an effective way to move students to critically assess their own work, which is paramount to formative assessment practice and deeper learning.

Recently my junior students completed a document-based question (DBQ), which is an assessment of the student’s ability to critically read a group of historical documents and respond in writing to a prompt using the documents as evidence to support an argument.  Similar to the ninth grade writing assignment, the students were provided the scoring criteria (rubric) in advance of the exercise and we spent time together in class clarifying the expectations for this task.

This is the second time this year that these students have written a DBQ so the front-loading of this exercise included examining samples from our previous essay, specifically samples pertaining to point of view analysis, which is the skill students struggle with the most.   Similar to the ninth grade exercise, the students have one class period to write their essay and then in class the next day the students spend time providing rich, informative feedback to a peer’s essay which is labeled by student ID number.  The peer assessment part of the process is completed in pairs and the students take turns examining and providing written, informative feedback for the writer based on the scoring criteria, and with their partner, they also engage in rich discussions about each essay while they provide the written feedback.

We also spend time in class talking about the quality of the feedback, which must be specific and informative so the writer may better understand what they have done well and what they need to do to improve this piece of writing.  By the end of the class period, each student has read and provided feedback for two essays, and consequently, when students collect their own essay there is informative, written feedback from two of their peers attached for them to consider.  Students are then asked to weigh the peer feedback, make revisions to their essay, type it and turn it in the next day.

When students turn in their revised essay I also ask that they include the original written draft as well as the peer feedback form because this provides evidence and insight as to how much of the peer feedback they considered in making their revisions.  This also provides essential feedback for me concerning the quality of the feedback the students provided.  I then proceed to score the typed version of the essay, selecting samples as I go to show to students after the essays are scored and returned.

One more step in this process is the intervention phase for those students who didn’t meet proficiency on this writing assignment.  During this phase I will sit down and conference with the student about which elements of their writing need improvement and together we will formulate a plan to make additional revisions.  I also take the time to conference with students who made significant improvements from their first essay, which was written a few weeks earlier.  During this conference I ask the student to bring their first essay as well as their most recent essay so together we can compare the quality and improvement of the two efforts.

Underlying this formative assessment process and the scoring of the work, which is marked in the grade book is the method of mounting evidence.  Rather than going into a long explanation about ‘mounting evidence’, I’ll simply refer to Marzano who states:

“The underlying dynamic of the method of mounting evidence, then, is that once a student has provided enough evidence for the teacher to conclude that a certain score level has been reached, that score is considered the student’s true score for the topic at that point in time.”[3]

This approach not only makes sense from a pedagogical standpoint, it is also supported from various research and theoretical perspectives.  Asking students to rethink, revise, and practice an activity until they demonstrate they can do it correctly (mounting evidence) is similar to the “mastery-oriented” approach put forth by Benjamin Bloom (1984)[4] and Tom Gusky (1987).[5]

How these efforts are measured and ultimately graded depends on the teacher.  However, I challenge teachers to consider what grades represent.  If grades are to represent learning, then the aforementioned formative assessment practices combined with the theoretical perspective of mounting evidence suggest this to be a sound practice for teaching, learning, and assessment.

If you’re still not convinced, perhaps this data will provide you with enough information to get you to ‘cross the Rubicon’:

The first graph represents the scores of my junior students for their first DBQ essay and their second DBQ essay from 2009.  The data represents the scores from 85 students, providing a sizeable data set for measurement.  You can see the improvement students made from DBQ 1 to DBQ 2 and you can see the number of students who reach proficiency which for this assessment is a score of six or higher.  The teaching methods I utilized in 2009 were similar to what was discussed previously and the scoring criteria was the same as well.  However, the practice of peer assessment, writing of detailed feedback followed by revision was NOT utilized.

The second graph represents the scores of my junior students for their first DBQ essay and their second DBQ essay from 2011.  The data also represents the scores from 85 students, which provides an adequate data set for comparison.  You can see the improvement students made from DBQ 1 to DBQ 2 and you can see the number of students who reached proficiency, which as I mentioned before is a score of six or higher.  The teaching practices used in 2011 did include the peer assessment and revision phase and so you would expect students to score higher because they were provided a chance to correct deficiencies.  But I will also argue that these students had a chance to demonstrate their mastery of the skill.

However, when you examine the third graph, the improvement demonstrated by the 2011 group compared to the 2009 group is visually significant.  I should also state that these two groups were chosen because they provide a clear contrast of the teaching practices described, and because the essay prompts for DBQ 1 & 2 in 2009 are the same for those in 2011.  This was done to provide validity and reliability to the results, which appear to demonstrate the effectiveness of the aforementioned formative assessment practices.

I acknowledge that the results are not altogether conclusive, however, another data point which may be considered are the results of the DBQ sub scores compared against each other (2009 & 2011) from the AP European History exam.  The problem in comparing these two sub scores is that the exam prompts will be different for the two groups for comparison; however, the associated skills and scoring criteria are the same.

The facilitation of formative assessments practices during instruction can provide teachers with a wealth of information that ultimately can inform their practice and improve student achievement.

“There has been considerable recent literature that has promoted assessment as something that is integrated with instruction and not an activity that merely audits learning.” (Shepard, 2000)[6]

Although much attention by policy-makers and practitioners has focused on summative assessment data (high stakes test scores), more attention is needed on formative assessments and their potential to inform instruction and improve student achievement.


[1] McCourt, F. (2005) Teacher Man: A Memoir, New York, Simon & Schuster.

[2] Hattie, J. A. (1992).  Measuring the effects of schooling.  Australian Journal of Education, 36(1), 5-13.

[3] Marzano, R. J. (2006).  Classroom Assessment & Grading that Work.  Alexandria, Virginia, ASCD

[4] Bloom, B. S. (1984).  The search for methods of group instruction as effective as one-to-one tutoring.  Educational Leadership, 42(3), 4-17.

[5] Gusky, T. R. (1987).  Rethinking mastery learning reconsidered.  Review of Educational Research, 57, 225-229.

[6] Shepard, L. A. (2000) The role of assessment in a learning culture. Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association. New Orleans, Louisiana.