Archive for the ‘Issue 2’ Category

Social Studies – Writing is a Process

Wednesday, October 12th, 2011

Social Studies teachers avoid ELA writing workshops like the plague.  This is an exaggeration, of course, but the statement has some validity.  So let’s rephrase the statement: most Social Studies teachers don’t want to attend a workshop that doesn’t address their field perspective.  Could it be the lack of workshops focused specifically for writing in the general Social Studies classroom?  Or could it be the time-consuming task that accompanies student writing, i.e. endless hours of grading?

Teachers of Advanced Placement Social Studies courses know all too well that writing is going to be a key part of their instruction and a significant student expectation.  For training many teachers attend AP institutes or obtain coveted access to the world of AP grading to gain better insight.  No such writing assessments are attached to any of the STAAR Social Studies examinations.

The lack of writing prompts on state Social Studies assessments may lead to two misconceptions.  The first misconception is that students in Social Studies courses don’t have to write.  The second misconception is that Social Studies teachers don’t need professional development in the field of writing.   These misconceptions couldn’t be further from the truth.  If we examine the new TEKS, writing for Social Studies begins in Grade 2, carries through to middle school, and all successive Social Studies courses that follow.

This doesn’t mean that every teacher needs to assign the age-old five paragraph history essay starting tomorrow.  In fact it would benefit teachers to examine the student expectations.  For example, students in grade 2 are expected to “create written and visual material such as stories, poems, maps, and graphic organizers to express ideas.”  In grade 6, students are expected to “create written and visual material such as journal entries, reports, graphic organizers, outlines and bibliographies based on research.”  By the time students get to World History, they are expected to “interpret and create written, oral, and visual presentations of social studies information.”   This means that students in every Social Studies class should be writing in various ways to authentically demonstrate the historical information that they are learning.

In Checking for Understanding, authors Fisher and Frey break up writing into two different types: high stakes writing and writing for learning.  According to the authors, both have important value, but writing for learning appears to be less commonly used and valued.  They assert,

(…)despite all the known benefits of using writing to learn content,

we rarely think of writing as a way for us to learn about our students’

thinking.  Writing clarifies thinking.  For that matter, writing is thinking.

Analyzing student writing is a great way for teachers to determine

what their students know.


As a novice teacher, I assigned the classic history essay because that’s what was assigned to me in high school and in college.  I believed that my students should learn to write in the very same way.  There were significant problems with this thinking.  First, I assigned essay writing without any pre-assessment to gauge their writing skills.  Second, I didn’t have a strategic plan for a writing process with my students.  Third, it took me an exceptionally long time to grade 175 essays.  In fact, it took me weeks.  I found myself weary, to say the least, upon returning the essays to the students.  By that time, the students didn’t care about it anymore.  Last, nothing else was done on my part to address inaccuracies that should have impacted my instruction. In all honesty, I didn’t know how to.

The longer I taught, the more I learned and began to understand that writing needed to be approached differently.  I started assigning manageable short response writing.   “Snippet” writing became the operative word for short paragraph response writing that the students would complete.  I could get the writing responses back to the students in a relatively quick time frame, while assessing if they understood what they were learning.  What I was doing, without knowing it, was focusing my attention on formative assessment rather than summative assessment.  I was learning how to create a process for writing that worked for both my students and me. The essay wasn’t exactly phased out, but rather worked in over time.  Additionally, I staggered the complete essays at intervals for different classes so that I wouldn’t assign myself to weeks of grading purgatory (a useful tip suggested to me by my principal).  Overall, it was a lot of trial and error, but I didn’t give up; I just restructured.

In November, the co-creators of the DBQ Project (Document Based Questioning) will lead two workshops at Region XIII specifically geared for Social Studies, but open to teachers of English Language Arts.  The hope is that teams of teachers will work together to collaborate and learn strategies to help students become better analytical thinkers.  Teachers will be led through DBQ analysis of primary sources to the development process of the written DBQ.

What we recognize most of all is that writing is a process.  For the teacher, if it is paired adequately with the content, it will not take away from instruction, but serve to improve it.


Fisher D. & Frey N. (2007). Checking for understanding: Formative assessment techniques for you classroom. Alexandria: ASCD.

Social Studies student expectations referenced: Grade 2 (19)(B), Grade 6(22)(D), World History (30)(B).

Using Released Test Items to Design Justified Lists and Card Sorts for Science

Wednesday, October 12th, 2011

Assessment seems to be all anyone is talking about in education these days.  Well, okay, a few people might have mentioned school financing, but STAAR, EOC, Reference Documents (the documents previously known as formula charts), and the just-released STAAR sample items… oh you hadn’t heard about those?  Yes, they were released by TEA on September 30, 2011, and can be found online.  And, since I know teachers in tested grades are going to want to look at those, go ahead.  Visit and look them over, then come back and finish this article in which I am going to give suggestions on utilizing standardized questions to design formative assessment experiences which can be integrated into student notebooks.

Standardized assessments serve a purpose in that they help to judge the effectiveness of different curricula and approaches to instruction, districts, and even teachers; but the results often inform us as to which TEKS a group of students or even an individual student have not mastered without providing insight as to what they do not understand or why.  In order to understand students’ thought processes, assessments must be written that allow for open-ended response, problem solving steps to be shown, and for students to be forced to confront common misconceptions side-by-side with the scientifically- based explanation of a phenomena and decide which explanation they hold to be true.  When these types of assessments are conducted throughout the learning process for the benefit of both teacher and student, then we call them formative assessments.  Renowned National Science Teacher Association (NSTA) author Page Keeley in her book Science Formative Assessment: 75 Practical Strategies for Linking Assessment, Instruction, and Learning, defines formative assessment as “assessment for learning” (Keeley, 2008).  Summative exams such as STAAR are considered to be assessments of learning in that they do not provide learning opportunities to students.  Both types of assessments may provide information that informs curriculum and instruction, but it is how the assessments impact a student that is the key.  In her book Keeley provides 75 Formative Assessment Classroom Techniques (FACTs).   Two types I have chosen to focus on are justified lists and card sorts.

Justified List

One type of formative assessment is the justified list, in which students are presented with a question such as, “Which of the following are producers?” and then a list that might include, “oak tree, mushroom, grass, algae, duckweed, corn, and dog.”  Students are tasked with checking off those things on the list that are considered producers and then asked to, “Write the rule by which you decided if something is a producer or not.”  We could also ask students to write three characteristics they use to determine if something is a producer.  The important task here is that students are examining their thinking about what are examples and non-examples and then explaining and justifying the characteristics they used.  The example I described using producers would be a great formative assessment to go along with TEKS 5.9(B) which is the TEKS assessed in question number 12 of the 2011 5th grade released questions.  Students should recognize and explain that they did not choose a mushroom because it breaks down nutrients from decaying organisms and thus cannot serve as the basis of a food chain. A chemistry example (see question number 1 of the 2011 Chemistry released questions) might be, “Which of the following are considered extensive properties?”

Justified lists can be used as pre-assessments (for example, a biology teacher might ask about producers before beginning a lesson on food webs) or to assess learning after the explanation phase of instruction (as would be the case when a 5th grade teacher uses the producer list).  They can be conducted in tandem with a think, pair, share to allow students to discuss and refine their ideas or they can be integrated into a unit assessment in which case the list should include some new examples the students might not have previously been confronted with.

Integrating justified lists into science notebooks is easy.  The question, justified list and prompt can be made to fit on half a sheet of paper which students can glue or tape into their notebook at the top so the paper can be lifted up and the rule which the student used and their justification can then be written directly on the notebook paper.

In addition to Science Formative Assessment, Keeley has written a series of books entitled Uncovering Student Ideas is Science.  All are available through NSTA at  An example chapter from one of Keeley’s probe books that includes a justified list can be found online at  Scroll down just a bit under details and click on the link next to Read Inside.

Card Sort

Another type of formative assessment is a card sort. Card sorts are designed in such a way that students sort a set of cards with either terms or pictures on them into two or more categories.  For example, during an 8th grade lesson utilizing the periodic table students might sort terms such as metallic appearance, non-metal, semiconductors, conductors, non-conductors, etc. onto an outline of the periodic table that has been divided into non-metals, metals, and metalloids such as that seen in the 8th grade 2011 Released Question number 3.  The cards that students sort could also include the symbols or names of some elements they are familiar with and pictures of some of the more common elements.

To really make students think, make the number of cards unequal in each category.  For example have 7 cards belong under non-metals, while only 6 belong under metals.  Another way of making the activity more rigorous is to include cards that will not be used.  When I taught Biology I included two cards that said “Does Not Contain DNA” and four cards that said “Does Contain DNA” for my sort of characteristics and example organisms for the six kingdoms. When students said they seemed to be missing “Does Contain DNA” cards and that they had cards that didn’t belong anywhere (such as the “HIV” card) they were demonstrating understanding and mastery on a higher level than if they had done a one-to-one matching activity.

Card sorts can be integrated into notebooks through questions or stems about why certain cards were put into categories, such as having students complete the statement, “I placed ________________ in the kingdom _____________ because…”  or  “We had the hardest time deciding where ____________ goes because…” You can also make the sort one that students cut apart themselves and then glue into a graphic organizer in their notebook so students can review their written justifications while observing the results of their sort.  Alternatively, you can use pockets where students can replicate the sort and practice on their own.  This is especially useful for more difficult concepts or content that is being introduced for the first time.

Tips for using card sorts:

  • Provide a key so students can check their sorting even if they are away from the classroom
  • Students can work in pairs or small groups
  • Ensure students discuss and reflect on why cards were sorted in certain ways
  • Use sentence stems to ensure English Language Learners participate in these discussions
  • Encourage students to distribute the cards between all members of the group and to take turns placing the cards

Example science card sorts produced by ESC Region XIII are available online at



Notice how, regardless of which formative assessment strategy or technique is chosen, it is the way in which the strategy is utilized and the guiding and probing questions asked by the teacher that provide the depth and rigor required by STAAR.  Formative assessments must be developed and designed in such a way that yes, informs instruction, but the main purpose should be for students to recognize and confront their own misunderstandings and begin to correct them.  A quiz, given to students working silently and independently that is then graded by the teacher with the only feedback to the student being a grade, is not considered formative.


Keeley, Page. (2008). Science Formative Assessment: 75 practical strategies for linking assessment, instruction, and learning.  Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

STAAR 2011 Released Test Questions.  Accessed online at, October 1, 2011.

ELAR – Formative Assessment

Wednesday, October 12th, 2011

Formative assessments are an integral part of the instruction process, providing feedback to both the teacher and student with the goal of improving learning.   Without formative assessments, teachers wouldn’t be able to make timely adjustments to instruction to ensure student mastery.  These adjustments can be anything from a re-teach for those who did not master the concept to an enrichment activity allowing students to apply their concept/skill in a new way.


reteach to enrich scale


Exit tickets (Fisher and Frey, 2004 ) and SOS Summaries (Dodge, 2009) are two  quick, easy, prep-free ways to assess FOR learning.



Exit Tickets are slips of paper or index cards in which students respond to a prompt or question pertaining to the day’s lesson.  The question or prompt shouldn’t take more than 3-4 minutes to complete.   Often they are referred to as “tickets out the door” because students cannot leave the classroom until they have handed the teacher their response.  After all the responses are collected, the teacher reviews them and uses the information on them to determine what adjustments need to be made to instruction.  The teacher determine which students (if any) need a re-teach, which students need additional practice through a reinforcing or elaborating  activity, and which students showed mastery of the lesson and can move onto an enrichment activity.  Fisher, D., and Frey, N. (2004) point out that there are three categories of Exit Ticket prompts.

  1. prompts that document learning
  2. prompts that emphasize the process of learning
  3. prompts to evaluate the effectiveness of instruction



Prompts that document learning Prompts that emphasize the process of learning Prompts to evaluate the effectiveness of instruction
The most important thing I learned today was…


Summarize today’s lesson in 25 carefully chosen words.


Write three things you would say to explain this to a younger child (or adult).


Choose one word that summarizes today’s lesson.  Explain why you chose that word.


I need help with…


What would you like to review during the next session?


How did you feel about__?


What did you do to participate today?


What is something you are doing to help yourself learn?

Rate your understanding of today’s topic from 1-10 and explain WHY you rated yourself that.


The best part of class today was…


What did you not like?


Secondary example of an Exit Ticket:

secondary ticket example



The S-O-S Summary (Dodge, 2009) is a formative assessment that ELAR teachers can use before, during or after instruction.

Before: to assess student attitudes, beliefs, and knowledge about a topic.

During: to assess what students are coming to understand about the topic.

After: to assess if attitudes and beliefs have been influenced or changed as a result of new learning and if they can better support their opinion.



S – Statement

Student reads the statement provided by the teacher.


O – Opinion

Student decides if he/she agrees or disagrees with the statement.


S – Support

Student supports their opinion with evidence, facts and examples.


Statements you might pose in an ELAR classroom:


There was a better solution to ______________.

____ is of value.

The character was justified when __________.

The author implies ______.

This passage suggests ___________

This character feels ______.

The story would be different (same) if the setting were changed to __________.

The effect of ___________ was most significant to __________.

______ is similar to ____________.

________ reminds me of ____.


The author has a bias.

The author believes ____________.

The lesson the character (or the author) is teaching is _____.

The passage (or the author) implies/suggests_______.

The tone of the passage is _________.

The writer’s overall feeling toward ______ is______.

_____fulfilled his/her dreams.

_____ is a good (or poor) choice for a title.

_____ is more successful.



Elementary examples of S-O-S Summary:








Fisher, D., and Frey, N. (2004).  Improving Adolescent Literacy: Strategies at Work.  New Jersey: Pearson Prentice Hall.

Dodge, Judith. (2009). 25 Quick Formative Assessments for a Differentiated Classroom: Easy, Low-Prep Assessments That Help You Pinpoint Students’ Needs and Reach All Learners. Scholastic Inc.


Formative Assessment in Mathematics

Wednesday, October 12th, 2011

“Formative assessment is an active and intentional learning process that partners the teacher and the students to continuously and systematically gather evidence of learning with the express goal of improving student achievement.” (Moss and Brookhart, 2009)

This definition implies three phases of formative assessment.  In order for the assessment to be intentional and systematic, there must be a planning phase.  Once planned, we move into the evidence-gathering phase, making sure that the methods used are active and produce clear indications of the level of student understanding.  Finally, the data must be used to provide feedback and adjust instruction in order to improve overall student achievement.

So how does this process of formative assessment work for a math teacher?  Let’s take a look at how formative assessment can be imbedded throughout your unit planning to maximize student success.


First, take a look at your topic, and ask yourself three questions:

  • What are the essential understandings that students should take away from this lesson or unit?
  • What are common misconceptions that will need to be addressed?
  • What is the learning target for lesson or unit?

An example might be adding and subtracting fractions with unlike denominators.  Students need to understand the importance of writing fractions with a common denominator before adding or subtracting.  It is common for students to think that they would then just add the “tops” and add the “bottoms” in order to arrive at their answer.  A clear learning target for students (such as “I can add fractions with unlike denominators”) is critical for the formative assessment process.  Once you and your students have a clear understanding of the goal and the common missteps along the way, you can begin to plan the learning experiences and formative assessment checkpoints that will lead to this goal.


As the learning process proceeds, it quickly becomes time to gather evidence of student learning.  This evidence can be formal or informal, verbal or written, or linguistic or non-linguistic, but it must be planned for, gathered, and used.  In mathematics, there are generally two forms of knowledge that you may be formatively assessing: procedural and conceptual.  As you introduce the concept of a common denominator, it is important to gauge student understanding before you proceed.  Some ideas for formatively assessing conceptual mathematical knowledge may include:

  • Hand signals, such as thumbs up/thumbs down, 1-2-3-4-5, etc…
  • Timed writing in response to a question or prompt, perhaps including a sentence stem such as “I can’t add ½ and ¼ without finding a common denominator because ________.”
  • Colored response items, such as red/yellow/green triangular prisms, blocks, cups, or plates
  • Timed pair share, giving students a chance to explain the concept to a partner, and also listen to their partner’s explanation

Once students have some conceptual understanding, you will then spend time helping students understand the process of getting a common denominator and using these new fractions to add and subtract quantities.  This will create new opportunities for formative assessment.  For procedural knowledge, some methods to gather evidence of student learning may include:

  • “What’s Wrong?” analysis of incorrect work to help students begin to identify common errors and misconceptions
  • Response Cards, where students hold up their answer to either a multiple choice or free response question simultaneously, using colored paper, white boards, or perhaps an electronic response system
  • Take and Pass, where one student begins the work and then passes the work to another student who does the next step, who then passes to another student, etc.  Could be done as a relay race as students become more proficient
  • Scavenger Hunt (also called Around the Room or I have/Who has), a circular set of problems, where one answer leads to another question and the student ends where they began
  • Side-by-Side Problems, in which two students work two columns of different problems that have the same result (For example, the answer to #1 on both columns might be 5, but the two problems are different.)

Notice that both the conceptual and procedural formative assessments provide quick, timely feedback to both you and the student about their level of understanding.


Once an evidence-gathering method has been selected and carried out, you are ready for the most important step – using this information to adjust instruction to improve student achievement.  If you discover some of your students are still struggling with the concept or procedure, some options for adjustment include:

  • Small Group Instruction, so that re-teaching or enrichment can take place as needed
  • Tiered Assignments, with scaffolding added to some tasks and complexity added to others
  • Discussion of misconceptions, either with a small group or the whole class
  • Clear, targeted feedback to students making common and consistent errors

Once an adjustment is made, the cycle continues.  Another round of evidence-gathering gives another chance to assess and adjust, as you and your students work toward developing student mastery and success!

Assessment for Learning: Technology Supported Formative Assessment

Wednesday, October 12th, 2011

Every day in classrooms across Texas, technology tools are infused with quality instruction to boost engagement, simplify learning task management, differentiate for diverse learning needs and increase learning through exposure to content with multiple modalities.  Educators have who embrace the transformative power of learning with technology can also take advantage of the opportunities available for assessment for learning, a.k.a – Formative Assessment.

Technology-rich, authentic assessments and automated quick-checks for understanding can provide feedback to inform teachers on how to design instruction and students on how to continuously improve. In the publication “Meaningful Measurement”, author Lyndsay M. Pinkus points out:

Many formative assessment strategies address the teacher’s information needs, helping to answer questions critical to good instruction:

• Who is and who is not understanding the lesson?

• What are this student’s strengths and needs?

• What misconceptions do I need to address?

• What feedback should I give students?

• What adjustments should I make to instruction?

• How should I group students?

• What differentiation do I need to prepare? (Pinkus, 2009)

I encourage you to download and read the full publication “Meaningful Measurement”, specifically chapter 3 concerning formative assessments.


When you get a chance, passively observe K-12 students as they interact with the technology around them.  Watch as they courageously explore the buttons and features they encounter.  They risk getting stuck or lost. They risk creating a “mess” of the tool.  They risk having to ask for help, or look up answers.  Observe as they test a solution, evaluate its effectiveness and determine the next action based on the information they gather.  Or, more simply stated, click a button and see what happens.  You can literally watch learning happen, in real time.  Each action is a moment of self-teaching, learning, and formative assessment for the student.  A popular label for this type of learning is “Problem Based Learning” or in some more structured cases “Project Based Learning”.  Both are a form of “Performance Assessment” and work as your guidance system as you lead each learner down the path to understanding and demonstration.   Check out “Sources of Performance Assessment Tasks, Rubrics, and Samples of Student Work” for excellent examples, rubrics, tasks and more for each content area and general topics.


Here are a few notable technology tools that are simple to integrate and get powerful results when it comes to student quickly taking the “pulse” of learning to formatively assess student progress.

  • is “a smart student response system that empowers teachers to engage their classrooms through a series of educational exercises and games via smartphones, laptops, and tablets.” In short, it allows teachers to create a variety of short assessments, such as quizzes and exit tickets, that can be taken from any web enabled device.  The interface is extremely kid-friendly, even for young students.  Best of all, it does not require student accounts, but still provides somewhat detailed student performance data by name via secure e-mailed excel file directly to the teacher.  Visit for a preview.  The site says it is in beta as of this writing, but you can go to (teacher tool) and (student interface) and grab an account and start assessing right away.  Easy to learn… easy to use.


Use to quickly and easily set up an online place for students to post comments, questions, and answer your prompts.  Again, this does site does not require students to have accounts, and the posts expire after a time you decide, allowing for “easy cleanup” while still giving access to absent students.  You simply set up the room (one click) and share the URL.  Try this site for your next “exit ticket”.

  • Epsilen – Project Share Texas

You’ve heard the buzz, and perhaps had some professional work experience in Project Share as a Texas educator, but in case you are unaware, the project is now open for student enrollment and you are encouraged to use the learning management system with your students.  (Note: talk to your district and your Education Service Center about student accounts).  With the Epsilen platform (Project Share’s engine) you and your students can interact in a robust virtual learning environment that allows you to share files, use forums for discussion, real time chats for, full featured test/quiz making suite (and associated grade tools), wikis for collaborative writing, blogs for student publishing, electronic portfolios with interactive assessment rubrics and much more.  Having all of these tools in one, safe, uniform and free platform opens up a treasure trove of formative assessment opportunities.  For more information, feel free to check out our blog at or the State’s official page at  Also, feel free to contact Region XIII’s Project Share team at for more information and to inquire about training.

L. M. Pinkus, ed., Meaningful Measurement: The Role of Assessments in Improving High School Education in the Twenty-First Century (Washington, DC: Alliance for Excellent Education, 2009).

Appraisals and Walkthroughs: Considertions for This Point in the Year

Wednesday, October 12th, 2011

Now that we have had a great start to our school year, what have you been doing for your teachers and their appraisals?  At this point you and the other appraisers should have completed multiple walkthroughs for every teacher on campus.  Formal appraisals should be well underway, along with help for your teachers who have been identified as needing more assistance.  As the State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness (STAAR) approaches, what do you need to look for in the classroom to insure success?

  • Look for student engagement.  Are students authentically engaged, compliant, or not engaged in the lesson?  Know what each level of engagement looks like before entering the classroom.
  • Listen to the questioning and discussions in the classroom.  Are high level questions and answers routinely being use by both teacher and students? Are students justifying their responses? Are teachers giving support for use of academic language?  (For example, are they providing sentence stems such as “The most important thing about _____ is_____ because _________.” Or “_________ is not an example of ___________ because it doesn’t have ________.”)
  • What evidence do you see of adjustment to instruction based on what
  • When you view weekly lesson plans, are they aligned with the state standards, and are you seeing that same alignment in the classroom instruction?
  • Do the teachers know what you are looking for in the classroom?  Make sure they know up front, and then let them know when you are and aren’t seeing it.

Of course, just because the formal appraisal has been completed, your support for the teachers is not finished.  Looking for best practices by means of consistent walkthroughs in every classroom on campus will occur throughout the school year.

RtI: An InFORMed Framework

Monday, October 10th, 2011

How Formative Assessments Fit into the Response to Intervention Framework

Response to Intervention (RtI) is a tiered model of intervention that can be defined as the practice of providing high quality instruction and interventions matched to student need, monitoring progress frequently to make changes in instruction or goals, and applying student response data to important educational decisions. (

Formative Assessement

This model is built on the idea that we, as educators, are making data-based decisions regarding both the instruction and the interventions that we provide our students. Within the RtI framework universal screening and progress monitoring are two types of formative assessments that serve as key sources of these data.


Formative Assessment at Tier I

At Tier I (the core instruction that all students receive), RtI makes use of universal screening measures to help guide our decision making in multiple ways.  For example:

  • Universal screening or benchmarking of all students throughout the year (beginning, middle and end of the school year at a minimum) allows for us to determine whether or not the general curriculum and instruction is meeting the needs of the majority of our students.
  • Universal screening scores can also be used as one data source to help flag students at Tier I who may be in need of supplemental supports.
  • Formative Assessment at Tiers II and III

    At Tiers II and III (the provision of targeted interventions for students determined to need supplemental supports), progress monitoring tools such as curriculum-based measures or curriculum-based assessments help provide invaluable data to inform decision making such as:

    • Whether or not a student is responding to the provided intervention
    • If the type, intensity, frequency or duration of an intervention needs to be adjusted

    Whether or not students are responding at a rate appropriate enough to close achievement or behavioral gaps in learning.

  • Universal Screening: Universal screening is conducted, usually as a first stage within a screening process, to identify or predict students who may be at risk for poor learning outcomes. Universal screening tests are typically brief, conducted with all students at a grade level, and followed by additional testing or short‐term progress monitoring to corroborate students’ risk status.
  • Progress Monitoring: Progress monitoring is used to assess students’ academic performance, to quantify a student rate of improvement or responsiveness to instruction, and to evaluate the effectiveness of instruction.

For a full glossary of RtI terms see: