Assessment Leadership – It’s Time:  How to engage students in the formative assessment cycle

PRIMEd Principal
April 2015


“Fair Isn’t Always Equal” book study by Rick Wormeli.


Giving formative assessments during my 11 years in the math classroom has been a journey. In the beginning of my career I viewed formative assessments as a temperature check of how students were doing along their way to the summative assessment. I gave these formative assessments as that is what we have always done and after grading them I entered the data into the gradebook.  The longer I was in the classroom the more I began to question this practice. Why was I giving this formative assessment? How do I, could I or should I use this data? Should I be the only one looking at the formative assessment data or should I include other teachers teaching the same content? Should the students be looking at their own formative assessment data?

Strategies for Implementation

As a district wide math department we started by reading “Fair Isn’t Always Equal” by Rick Wormeli. Over the course of a year all Math Instructional Leaders (from 16 schools) read the book, discussed the ideas, and surveyed our own math departments on why we assign grades to students and the way we gave grades slowly changed. We went from making kids be timely and responsible to how do we make a new structure to help all involved truly understand what students know and don’t know and how we can support them when they do or don’t know.

AFL Example

AFL Example

Working with in the PLC model for many years, and as we began implementing Standards Based Grading (SBG), it was a natural transition to begin talking about formative assessment data with other teachers teaching the same content. We continued our conversations by analyzing the problems for validity and sharing instructional strategies when we saw discrepancies in students learning from one classroom to the next. We knew the work we were doing was improving our instructional decisions, however we still were working extremely hard to get the students to own their learning. As a content based PLC we knew something had to change—students need to be involved in the formative assessment process.

It is imperative to know that as we were improving our practices on formative assessment. We were also tightening our practices on Standards Based Grading (Blog for more information on SBG). When I stepped into the role as assistant principal, SBG was the spring board into helping us re-shape our formative assessment practices. As we were moving forward we felt that we were doing so many things—AFLs, summative and formative assessments, SBG, parent meetings, IEP meetings, homework checks, etc. Implementing SBG was allowing us as educators to give specific feedback to the students immediately on what they knew, what they didn’t know and to what level of proficiency they were performing, however it was wearing teachers out as we continued to try to get it all done. We had already blended our AFL (assessment for Learning) to include essential learning standards and areas for students to track formative and summative information and yet, students were still not taking ownership of their own learning. It then dawned on us. Why were we expecting a different outcome from students when all we were doing was giving them a fancy AFL? That is when we realized we needed to do something different. The great news is different doesn’t have to be radical, it just needs to be purposeful.

Unit Review

Unit Review

Now, in our third year of SBG implementation we have purposefully incorporated formative assessments. Instead of giving students a review packet the day before a summative assessment they receive the form at the beginning of the unit attached to their AFL. As we work through learning tasks students are expected to complete problems aligned to standards on their review. When the review day comes the conversation and actions are purposeful in focusing on what students still need help on. Students mind-sets started to change from “I don’t know how to do anything” to “Can you help me better understand this standard?” More students than ever before were seeking out ways to improve their learning of specific essential standards.

assessment 3

Proficiency graph

All of the above work was helping students begin to take ownership of their learning based on formative assessment feedback. The last idea we incorporated cemented the importance in the minds of our 9th grade students—the proficiency graph (see right)! I would not have believed another educator if they told me this is what did the trick. The “Proficiency Graph” was a simple template of all of the essential learning standards students were to learn during a particular semester. It also showed the “Bar of Proficiency”. After any formative or summative assessment students added to their graphs. Students finally had a tool that showed them in real time what they knew, what they still needed support in and that their hard work helped them to learn. It didn’t matter if they did not hit the Proficiency Bar right away because they now had a goal to reach that was concrete in their brains!!

We’ve made some revisions along the way. As we’ve work through the challenges, our teachers, administrators, and Content Specialist at our district office have continued support in moving forward with a transition that we believe will better reflect what students have actually learned in our schools and to create student ownership of their learning!!!!

Guest Blogger

Rebecca Angus: NCSM member and assistant principal at Metro Tech High School in Phoenix, AZ.

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