Where are We? (aka, “Dad, are We There Yet?”)

Much is being written and discussed about what and how to use assessments in our schools.  It is now the subject of movies as well as discussions about how to reform education.

What follows is one example of how a thoughtful group of administrators and teachers answered the most important questions about students’ progress in a school for at-risk learners:

At what level in reading, math and writing skill is each one of our students performing? Is our instruction helping them? How do we know? And how far have they come since they started with us? How does each student compare to a standardized sample in their age and grade group?

Below, Bill Musolf, Lower School Dean of Students for Lawrence School, explains how we answer those questions – and why we ask them in the first place.

Thank you, Bill, for the clear and thoughtful explanation of formative and summative assessment.



Where are We?  (aka, “Dad, are We There Yet?”)

Let’s say you needed to take a week long trip from Seattle to New York.  Once started, you might begin to wonder:

“Am I heading in the right direction?”

“Am I making good time?”

“Will I arrive in New York?”

To answer those questions you will need to evaluate your progress. To do that you need to know where you are staring from, how quickly you move, and you must have some way of determining when you reach your destination.

There are mainly two forms of evaluation, summative and formative.

Summative evaluation occurs at the end, after a task is finished.  It helps answer the question of, “Did we get where we wanted to go?” In the trip example above, it would be the equivalent of driving for a week (without looking at a map or road signs), getting out of the car and then asking someone, “Where am I?”

What if when you left Seattle you went north instead of east?  You likely ended up in Anchorage, Alaska instead of anywhere near New York.  Although a summative evaluation is helpful, it does not always allow for a timely readjusting of the route. It can answer the question, “Am I in New York?” but if the answer is “No” it does not allow for course correction or rerouting.  The evaluation occurred too late, at the end of the trip –and thus, time is up and routing adjustments not possible.

At Lawrence School, a school for students who learn differently, we use the Woodcock Johnson Tests of Achievement (Third Edition) as a summative evaluation.  At the end of the year, each student in grades 1-8  takes the WJ-III.  Results are compiled, given to parents, and help answer the question of “Where are we right now?” academically.

Very good information but… what if the results of the WJ-III are not as positive and significant growth was not made?  Since it is given at the end of the year, there is no time to make curriculum adjustments. We may have journeyed, but we did not end up at our anticipated location.

As opposed to summative evaluation, Progress Monitoring allows us to measure progress as we go, allowing plenty of opportunity for adjustments.  Progress Monitoring is a formative evaluation that helps answer the question, “Are we heading in the right direction, at the right speed?”  It is an ongoing ‘in progress’ assessment, and is performed on a weekly basis here at Lawrence School.

Using our trip analogy, it would be the equivalent of using a map and watch.  Every four hours on the trip, the map and watch are used to plot where you are on the route.  It also helps you know if you would reach your destination.  The benefit of formative evaluation is that it offers feedback in a timely way that allows modification to the route. Or, in education terms, modification to the instruction to more efficiently benefit the student’s learning.

Progress Monitoring at Lawrence School has been designed to capture students’ growth in reading and writing skills, as well math facts, by measuring fluency in these areas.  Please note that there are many other ways we monitor academic growth (daily teacher observation, in-class assignments, reviews, mastered homework, mid-year reports, end-year reports, and – as mentioned above – Woodcock Johnson Achievement testing).  Progress Monitoring simply captures one aspect of a student’s academic profile – fluency.

Fluency (speed + accuracy) can be measured by evaluating how quickly and accurately a student can perform a task. A student’s speed increases gradually as skill and proficiency improves.  It can be measured over time and improvement in speed can be interpreted as progress.  Essentially, fluency measures how easily something can be done. Fluency frees attention to perform more difficult tasks.

For example, if a student spends considerable attention and mental energy recognizing and pronouncing words when reading, their comprehension is likely to suffer.  Similarly, if a student spends a lot of time trying to remember basic math facts, there may be confusion or simple errors when trying to apply math in story problems or real world contexts.  Lastly, if a student struggles with handwriting and spelling as they get their thoughts down on paper, they may lose their idea and not be able to communicate.

Here is a simple description of the three areas (reading, math, writing) in which formative evaluation informs instruction at Lawrence:

Reading Fluency is simply the number of words read correctly within a minute from a passage.  We are using a system already developed through the University of Oregon.  It is called DIBELS and stands for Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills.

Math Fluency is simply the number of basic math facts in a specific computation area (addition, subtraction, multiplication, division) a student can correctly perform in a minute.

Writing Fluency measures the total number of words written as well as how often a student can pair two words consecutively that convey meaning and are spelled correctly.  The student is given a writing prompt, 30 seconds to brainstorm, and three minutes to write.

Evaluation requires courage.  What if the results are not favorable?  Then more difficult questions arise:

“What are we doing that is not working?”

“What do we need to do differently?”

But remember, it is critical to answer those questions well before the end of a school year, so we have time to adjust curriculum or approach. Our goal is to help each one of our students make the most progress they can, as quickly as they can.

And that is a trip well worth taking.

Bill Musolf
Dean of Students
Lawrence School – Lower

Leave a comment below or e-mail the author at bmusolf@lawrenceschool.org


About lsalza

Headmaster of Lawrence School serving children with learning differences in grades K-12; "Where differences are not disabilities and where great minds don't think alike."
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2 Responses to Where are We? (aka, “Dad, are We There Yet?”)

  1. Joshua Paul says:

    Very interesting information. Good luck to all of you students @ Lawrence. I care about you all-& the school-A LOT!!!!! Enjoy your summer.

  2. Lou Salza says:

    Thanks Joshua! Hope you have a great summer! Please stay in touch!

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