Even first graders can do it at this Czech school where self-assessment is as important as grades. From Aktualne.cz.

Kids often learn that they should try to earn straight As, no Fs, and when something is “good,” that’s a C. But grading from A to F is not the only option. “The teacher and the students should define a common learning objective and continuously evaluate how they are doing,” says Karla Cerna, a school principal who has been working with this method for over 30 years.

It’s Wednesday morning and the sun is shining through the windows, illuminating the walls of a colorful classroom. A class is about to start in the village school in Reznovice, outside Ivancice in South Moravia. Third graders are sitting on a carpet in front of a large whiteboard, waiting for their teacher. 

They already know what today’s lesson will be about, as it’s written on the board: mastering the rules governing which vowel follows the letter v. They also know they will use three learning tools: testing with the teaching assistant, filling out worksheets, or practicing the words on computers. They are supposed to complete all three tasks. The order of the tasks and the amount of time to spend on each one are up to each youngster to decide.

During the class, they work on their own. Only exceptionally does someone ask for help. “The system of formative assessment, which we use, leads children to independence. The teacher is supposed to put in most effort during the preparation process – most of the work during the class itself should be done by the students,” says their teacher, Martina Grycova. “They try to arrive at the solution on their own. If they don’t know something, they can use an aid or talk to a classmate. In this way, they also learn much more about themselves,” she says.

Teachers in Reznovice have been using formative assessment for 30 years. In the Czech Republic, this is rather the exception than the norm. Some teachers and parents remain distrustful of the method, but more and more schools are trying to introduce it. The system is proving its worth and is being recommended by both education experts and the Ministry of Education.

Setting Clear Goals

“The basis of formative assessment is continuous work with the goal and with evidence of learning, cooperation with classmates, self-assessment, and feedback based on dialogue with the student,” explains Helena Zitkova, an education specialist at Pardubice University. “It leads students to take responsibility for learning and supports their inner motivation,” she says.

The way to that goal is defined by the teacher and the students, working together.

Everything starts the moment the teacher enters the classroom, clear as to what the class should accomplish in the lesson. The goal must be achievable and verifiable. “We cannot tell the students we’re going to do page 32 in the textbook – it has to be a particular subject matter,” explains Karla Cerna, the principal of the combined preschool and elementary school in Reznovice.

Children at the Reznovice school listen avidly as visiting artist Eliska Podzimkova talks about her work. Photo from ZS a MS Reznovice’s Facebook page.

“Even the first graders are capable of expressing what they can do in order to achieve the goal, and they can recognize what needs to change so that the result is better next time,” the principal says. She feels that children approach learning with the most enthusiasm when they know exactly what the end result should be.

“If the goal is to write a letter of the alphabet in the proper way, students work on their own. When it comes time to check their work, we first focus on what they did well. The student will draw a circle around a letter that they like, and so will the teacher. Only then do we focus on which letter should be re-written, and why. The child decides which part they will erase, and what is wrong with it,” Cerna says.

“I don’t cross out anything” on a pupil’s worksheet, Grycova says.

“Next to each line, I write as many crosses as there are mistakes. The children then look for the mistakes themselves and correct them. They will remember it better than if they get back a sheet full of words crossed out in red.”

Feedback from both the teacher and the students is important. At the end of this class, the third-graders, the teacher, and the teaching assistant jointly review the day’s lesson. 

“Who knows the words with y after v the way they expected to at the beginning of the class? Was everything clear?” A forest of hands goes up. “Did anybody not have enough time to finish a task?” continues the teacher. One boy says he didn’t do the computer exercise. “I spent too much time on the worksheet. I didn’t pay attention,” he explains. “Yes, that will be the reason. Next time, it would be good if you watched the time more closely,” the teacher advises.

Principal Cerna says that kids aren’t afraid of honestly explaining their failures if they know that no punishment is coming. “This student realized he needs to keep better time. A mistake or a time delay is not a problem – on the contrary, it can be a good starting point for another goal,” she notes.

Just a Grade Is not Enough

The key to the formative approach is self-assessment with continuous feedback. This does not mean assigning grades in the traditional way. 

“Grades are just subjective numbers that we’re used to,” says Pardubice University’s Zitkova, a former teacher in both primary and secondary schools, referring to the Czech one-to-five grades, corresponding to the A-to-F used in some other countries.

A Reznovice pupil’s report on a class day in the field with an entomologist. Photo from ZS a MS Reznovice’s Facebook page.

The traditional grading system only assesses knowledge acquired. “A grade does not take into account, for example, that the child is willing to help others and lend them their crayons, or that they are hard-working,” Cerna says.

Grades can also have a negative effect on a child’s motivation and mental state.

“I notice that kids often care about grades a great deal. It is often a source of stress, tension, and sometimes even anxiety,” child psychologist and therapist David Macek says. This is particularly true when a child under-performs according to their own expectations or those they sense from others, he adds.

In spite of its shortcomings, experts are not writing off classical grading completely. “I meet with principals and teachers who think that the formative approach means that the report card is a written evaluation. They think that they will have to write long letters to students twice a year, which puts them off. But that’s a mistake,” says Jiri Vorlicek, coach and lecturer in formative assessment courses with the environmental education association Lipka in Brno.

Cerna agrees that you can also do formative education with grades, but you have to support them with words. “It’s about the process that helps the children learn. If I express to the student that he’s not doing something well by means of a grade, I also need to tell him what he needs to do in order to improve. And for that you need words,” she states.

At her school, students are graded starting in the fourth grade. Teachers do what they can to ensure that the shift from verbal assessments only to formal grades does not come as a shock. “Third graders look forward to the grades. But it’s important for them to always have the sense of security that if they don’t do something well, nobody is going to judge them harshly. Some kids simply don’t get 1s, that’s just how it is. That’s why we emphasize verbal assessment, which gives them a feeling of appreciation and success,” Cerna says.

Assessments at the Reznovice school also include a record book for each pupil which they and the teacher both fill out. Consultation sessions two or three times a year with the teacher, student, and parents are another important tool. The school has also introduced new report cards as part of a project led by Jana Kratochvilova, head of the department of education at Masaryk University in Brno.

“So far, 10 elementary schools of different sizes and from different parts of the country have joined the project. It involves 115 teachers, 53 classes, and around a thousand students,” Kratochvilova says. According to her survey, parents like the new card because it tells them exactly their child is good at, and where improvement is needed. They also appreciate the inclusion of the child’s self-assessment with the report.

An assessment booklet adopted by the elementary school in the town of Cachrov after the one used in the Reznovice school. The booklet contains pages with information about the student, planned activities for the school year, absences from school, and ends with the child’s self-assessment. Photo via ZS a MS Cachrov website.

Good Results, but Also Mistrust

The formative assessment method is a proven success, according to education trainer Vorlicek. Kratochvilova agrees.

“The fact that students are motivated and supported in their development by early and continuous feedback is proven by research and the long-term experience of teachers,” she says. 

Therapist David Macek, who used to work as a psychologist at an elementary school, also believes the method can has a positive effect on students, especially in the first years of school when a child’s attitude toward education is being formed.

Formative assessment is common in the Scandinavian countries, the UK, and the Netherlands. In Finland, which has for a long time scored as one of the best countries in the PISA international educational ranking, formative assessment is one of the fundamental pillars of education.

Still, some Czech teachers reject the method. “They often claim that parents or school management demand grades from them. But the real reason is a mistrust of new things,” says Katerina Emer, lecturer with the Association of Freelancers in Education. Another frequent argument is that formative assessment takes up a lot of time, and is not properly financially compensated.

Karla Cerna also comes across an unwillingness to give up tried and tested methods. “People are often afraid of what is new. Even some teachers do not like to change, not realizing that continuous self-education and improvement is their job,” she says.

Parents choose to send their children to the school in Reznovice precisely because of its approach, the principal says. “We have a few children from the district, but most kids commute from a distance of up to 20 kilometers.” Parents  “want the school to pay attention to their child, so that it’s not just one person in a mass,” she says.

This article originally ran in the Czech publication Aktualne.cz. Transitions has edited and slightly shortened the text. Translated by Matus Nemeth.