Learning Data Walls: The Formative Use of Summative Assessments
As my Success at the Core colleague Wendy Sauer stated in her recent blog post, Great Formative Assessment Resources for Educators, the new year brings the opportunity to take stock of and assess our progress toward desired goals. At the middle school where I am principal, January marks the mid-point in the school year, as one semester ends and another begins.
One recent morning, while visiting classrooms, I had the opportunity to sit with a group of ninth grade students in Washington state teacher Stephanie Kraft’s World Studies class. Students were discussing a recent assessment and writing reflections in their journals. Simultaneously, Stephanie was moving from group to group, briefly engaging each student in conversation, and then handing him or her a specific colored dot. Students then placed their dot on a 5×7 index card, which would later be put into a color-coded wall pocket, and continued writing their reflections. My question to one group of students about the different dot colors sparked a lively conversation. Students willingly shared their level of preparation, understanding of key concepts, and reflections on learning. Some were quite honest about their lack of preparation and possible next steps they would take prior to reassessment opportunities.
In August, just prior to the start of the new school year, Stephanie was part of a teacher leadership team that explored strategies in the effective use of data, as a part of our overall school improvement plan. (I wrote about this work in a previous Success at the Core blog post, New Beginnings.) The team was guided by SaC’s Leadership Development module, Using Data Effectively, which included a video entitled Data Walls. Stephanie adapted the data walls strategy into a formative assessment tool to guide her instruction, empower students, and improve learning.
Impressed with what was unfolding in Stephanie’s classroom, I wanted to know more, and I asked her share this practice publicly with the rest of our staff.
At a recent staff meeting, Stephanie explained how her exploration of the Using Data Effectively module inspired her to create a data wall system that allowed her to see “at-a-glance” clear evidence of student learning. She wanted to foster student ownership for learning, and she needed the system to be easily manageable for her 150 students. What emerged is a process that she uses after each unit test or “summative assessment.”
Here’s how it works:
After the assessment, Stephanie holds a quick, one-minute conference with each student. Each student receives a colored dot that they place on an individual 5×7 card next to the assessment name (e.g., Unit Test). Each color dot corresponds to a scoring range on the assessment:
- Green = 90-100%
- Yellow = 80-89%
- Red = 70-79%
- Purple = 60-69%
- Dark Blue = 50=59%
- Light Blue = 49% and below
Students then place their cards in pockets on a data chart, organized by color. In our district, students always have the option to redo any assessment. If a student does so, and scores higher, they place a new color dot over the original one and move their card up the chart, into a new pocket. In this way, both students and Stephanie have a visual record of scores and progress over time.
While Stephanie holds these mini-conferences, all students simultaneously record their reflections on the assessment in journals. They write about what worked and what didn’t; how their study habits and/or note-taking during the unit may have impacted their scores; and their goals for reassessment and/or new learning. Students then share their reflections in small groups.
According to Stephanie, the act of placing or moving their cards in the appropriate pocket on the data wall provides students with a tangible opportunity to see and touch their assessment results in a way that viewing scores on paper or in a grade book cannot. More importantly, Stephanie emphasized that by talking with every student, reviewing their written reflections, and summarizing class feedback, she learns how to support her students better. She discovers which concepts need greater emphasis or areas she needs to re-teach, and how to better support individual students who struggle. Over the course of the semester, she has also noticed that the quality and depth of student reflection responses has improved.
Formative and summative assessments are interconnected. When balanced properly and used to guide further learning, they represent key elements of good classroom instruction. Middle school teacher Heather Wolpert-Gawron states in How to Look at Multiple-Choice Assessments Formatively, “In my classroom, taking a test doesn’t end the learning. In fact, it signals the beginning.” This concept is clearly present in Stephanie’s classroom. Through individual reflection, group discussion, and the use of data cards, students gain tangible evidence of improvement over the course of the semester and year.