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Middle school math teachers learn formative assessment skills to overcome students’ anxiety

By March 26, 2018March 15th, 2024No Comments

Diverse Elementary Class

Even in the most supportive of middle schools, students’ performance in math and science can decline sharply. With a larger peer group to judge themselves against, many students who exuded confidence in elementary school no longer feel they can measure up, and stop trying. This harms not only the students but society at large. Industry’s voracious need for workers in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) seems like a good bet far into the future, yet tweens who might have gone on to prosper in STEM are taking themselves out of consideration before they can ride a moped.

Many teachers already know how they’d like to address this: use more formative assessment, with its frequent, informal check-ins, often involving students assisting one another. But they’re deterred by the concept’s reputation as a time suck. Fortunately, new research from McREL and IMPAQ International shows that math teachers can significantly boost their use of formative assessment without sacrificing other responsibilities.

The evaluation team found that a professional development (PD) model called assessment work sample method (AWSM; feel free to pronounce it “awesome”) was effective in seven test schools. Like other effective PD models, it emphasizes the power of teachers to support one another via peer coaching. investing in monthly collegial learning sessions resulted in a more manageable workload, and helped teachers transfer their knowledge of formative assessment into classroom practice. Teachers commented that after a year of AWSM training, both they and their students found their goals more accessible.

Formative assessment involves lots of feedback to help students hone in on three questions: Where am I going? How am I doing now? Where do I go next? Numerous studies show that well designed formative assessment strategies are effective with all ages and subjects—particularly for students struggling with math. The clarity that students experience when they understand what they need to accomplish helps them learn efficiently, avoiding the wasted time and effort of trial and error. Piling success upon success—rather than failure upon failure—builds confidence and enthusiasm for learning. In our study we were interested to learn that some students initially resisted the idea of ungraded assessments because they expected to accumulate “points” for all expenditures of effort. Once they recognized that stakes don’t always need to be high, they relaxed and showed greater engagement and persistence in complex problem solving.

Formative assessment sounds logical, so why do math teachers shy away from it? Because external pressure to cover a packed curriculum encourages the use of selected response and other types of quick scoring tasks; when students aren’t required to show their solution strategy or explain their reasoning, it is more difficult for teachers to discern student misconceptions. There’s also pressure on teachers to score every student assignment, and once students receive a score, they tend to ignore corrective feedback. That’s why professional development designed specifically to help math teachers implement formative assessment would be useful.

AWSM equips teachers with a cover sheet that conveys the goals of the lesson, the knowledge or skill the lesson is meant to develop, the success criteria to be used, and anything else that will help them understand the “what and why” of the assignment. Following this cover sheet are four student work samples, two that achieved the learning goals and two that didn’t. These samples helped teachers launch productive discussions in their PD sessions, which included a two-day introductory workshop and eight grade-specific sessions of about 45 minutes, with a facilitator experienced in both formative assessment and math instruction. Using multiple assessment methods, we found that participating teachers increased their content knowledge as well as their familiarity with formative assessment. Simply put, it made them better math teachers by considering everything students experience in class, cognitively and socially, rather than focusing exclusively on getting the answer.

To learn more about the AWSM study and its findings, contact Tedra Clark at To learn more about professional development options, contact Kathleen Dempsey at


Tedra Clark is a research director at McREL International. Her experience in cognitive science research and applied education research includes research design, instrument development, data collection, statistical analysis, research synthesis, and dissemination.

Kathleen Dempsey is a senior director at McREL International. A former teacher and administrator, she helps schools, districts, and state education agencies with strategic vision, program development, and delivery of training and coaching focusing on academic standards.

McREL is a non-profit, non-partisan education research and development organization that since 1966 has turned knowledge about what works in education into practical, effective guidance and training for teachers and education leaders across the U.S. and around the world.

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