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With MSU, Holt Educator Keeps Closer Learning Tabs on Students

This school year, Holt Schools' educator Sean Carmody is helping other area teachers learn 'formative assessment.'
Mark Bashore
This school year, Holt Schools' educator Sean Carmody is helping other area teachers learn 'formative assessment.'

Tens of thousands of school teachers are preparing to make their way back to Michigan classrooms. A growing number of them are adding something new to their skill sets. Advocates of “formative assessment” say it’s important to continually track whether students are learning material—not just at test time.  WKAR’s Mark Bashore tightened up his learning curve with help from a few local practitioners.

Late August finds Sean Carmody outdoors, coaching the Holt Junior Varsity football team.

“So we’re gonna be here and we’re gonna get a call from our running back,” he explains to his players. “Ryan and Todd—that’s on you.”

A week from today, he’ll start juggling x’s and o’s with x’s, y’s and z’s as he embarks on his 13th year in the Holt Schools, where he teaches high school math.

The 34-year old MSU grad is also eager to get back to the classroom because he feels he’s becoming a better teacher. Since 2008, Carmody and a few thousand other Michigan educators have added something called “formative assessment” to their methodology.  It’s a practice that employs continuous assessment of whether students are learning.

Michigan State University researcher and professor Ed Roeber oversees FAME--the ‘Formative Assessment for Michigan Educators’ initiative.  

“Our goal is to try and get teachers to know whether kids learned what we taught them today, so that before I teach them again tomorrow, I know whether they learned it or not and I know what I’m going to do about it,” he explains.      

With these ongoing, sometimes minute by minute reckonings, ‘formative assessment’ is viewed as a way to complement less-frequent standardized tests like the MEAP--which measure months or years of learning.    

When ‘formative assessment’ shows students aren’t learning, teachers use various tactics to keep them moving forward. MSU’s Roeber uses simple arithmetic to illustrate. Remember elementary school subtraction? Knowing that 6 minus 3 equal 3 isn’t enough to solve, say, 27 minus 18.  That requires “borrowing.”  Roeber says some students will “get” borrowing.  And those who don’t…

“…will need help in actually how to literally set it up—to borrow from the two and make that not a seven but a 17,” he continues. “And a third group that can set up the problem correctly but can’t subtract, may need some work on subtraction facts.”

They would need to back up and review basic subtraction.

Sean Carmody says ‘formative assessment’ classrooms often involve groups of students working on different things.

“So my kids who really get it are working on this task, which is helping them learn,” he says. “My kids who need to work on these things over here are working on those things and my kids who aren’t getting it very well at all are working on those things they need to learn to move forward.”

Often, students who are making the most progress are deployed as tutors for those who don’t.

As basic as it may sound, Roeber says ‘formative assessment’ isn’t always taught in college, and it’s not formally used in many classrooms. Vince Dean of the Michigan Department of Education says one challenge is that teachers already are bombarded with such initiatives.

“Different turnaround models, and (those) come with lots of different initiatives,” he says. “And there’s lots of different kinds of student improvement type of initiatives that people have to weigh in terms of the resources and the professional development time they have to commit.”

Practitioners tend to say great things about formative assessment.  Quite a few say it’s reinvigorated them about teaching.  Its long term viability depends on harder “achievement” data.  Again, Professor Ed Roeber.

“If we can show that there’s an actual achievement difference, which I suspect there will be,” he explains, “then we might get some of the low-performing schools to sign on, when they see that ‘Oh, this isn’t just ‘feel good’ stuff. This is about actually improving test scores.’”

Next month, Roeber will update his research about how “formative assessment” is working in Michigan. Those findings will help refine how teachers in Michigan,  across the country and around the world measure learning in the future. 

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