A Dinner Conversation with James Popham on Formative Assessment

dinner2A few months ago, I had the opportunity to share dinner and conversation with James Popham. As an avid fan of his work on learning progressions, I was excited to finally meet him. Three years prior, in the midst of a statewide collaboration to build a Common Core Standards-aligned model 6-12 ELA curriculum, I had hit upon Popham’s research.

To build a model curriculum meant we had the blessing and the challenge of vertically aligning across a K-12 grade span. Vertical alignment meant sequencing not only content knowledge, but also conceptual understanding and application of content. Dealing with content, in some ways, is the easier part of sequencing a learning progression. As teachers, a content approach is ingrained in our practice, district pacing guides, and state standards. The much harder task is to theorize a learner’s learning progression of conceptual understanding and application. As we developed the K-12 curriculum we had to consider:

● what tasks to scaffold across a progression in terms of complexity,
● what embedded instructional practices best support students into increasingly more complex content, understanding, and application, and
● what evidence we should focus our attention on when studying student work to determine growth.

So I now sat across the table from the James Popham with my mind spinning. What would I say to or ask a scholar who has been such an influential voice in education for decades? After the perfunctory jokes about bad Michigan weather, ordering our meals, and performing introductions of our small group of colleagues, the conversation shifted to formative assessment. Why the continued struggle to build system-wide effective formative assessment practices? Popham’s theory: educators are paying attention to the wrong things. Leaning in, we waited to hear what these wrong things are. He went on to share that in his experience and research, teachers focus more on instructional procedures than what happens to students as a result of those procedures. My initial reaction was to push back. Was he saying that instructional practices were not important enough to focus professional learning around? He politely engaged in a back and forth volley with me, but it was clear that the exchange didn’t change either of our minds.

Weeks later, I engaged further with Popham’s theory by reading his book Unlearned Lessons: Six Stumbling Blocks to Our Schools’ Success. If you’re wondering, the six stumbling blocks Popham presents as holding school systems back from maximizing student achievement are:
● Too many curricular targets
● Underutilization of classroom assessment
● Preoccupation with instructional process
● Absence of affective assessment
● Instructionally insensitive accountability tests
● Abysmal assessment literacy

In my second “hearing” of Popham’s argument, I found some common ground. His claim was not that no attention should be paid to instructional procedures but rather, that as teachers and administrators, we can easily fall prey to focusing solely on procedures and lose sight of what happens to students as a consequence of instruction. Now pair this preoccupation with instructional procedures to the underutilizing of classroom assessment and voila`–formative assessment becomes misinterpreted as studying summative student data long after its collection.

I had to admit–I could now see where Popham was coming from. The question remains though: how do we better balance attention between instructional practices and formatively assessing student learning? Over the next few weeks, I will share a story of a statewide collaborative of writing teachers and university researchers who have been working in this particular problem space. Their inquiry: what instructional practices produce effective student peer to peer feedback and what learning does peer feedback make visible? In the meantime, if learning progressions and their relationship to effective formative assessment interests you, the following resources may be useful.

Formative Assessment in Practice: A Process of Inquiry and Action, Margaret Heritage (2013)
Transformative Assessment, W. James Popham (2008)
Transformative Assessment in Action, W. James Popham (2011)

Assessment Literacy in Today’s Classroom
Creating Learning Progressions

Learning Progression to Support Self-Assessment and Writing about Themes in Literature: Small Group

Using a Learning Progression to Help Students Work Towards Clear Goals (K-2)

Susan GolabSusan Wilson-Golab
joined Oakland Schools in 2010 following 22 years of in the field 6-12 experience across two different states and rural, suburban, and urban contexts. Her research and practice focus heavily on the evolving definition of literacy, developmental learning progressions, and formative assessment. At the district level, Susan has served as classroom teacher, Literacy Specialist, and ELA Curriculum Coordinator. These experiences and study helped Susan in her role as Project Leader for developing a model 6-12 ELA curriculum for the Michigan Association of Intermediate School Administrators (MAISA)— a curriculum resource now globally available. More recently, Susan launched Michigan Teachers as Researchers Collaborative (MiTRC). The mission: to build collaborative participatory research between university and secondary teachers from around the state interested in exploring and developing the teaching and assessing of writing. In 2000, she joined the National Writing Project through the satellite Oakland Writing Project site based out of University of Michigan. She now serves as Site Director for the Oakland Writing Project.

Consultants' Corner Oakland Writing Project

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