Leading with Formative Assessment

PRIMEd Principal
November 2015

Tool:  Embedded Formative Assessment, Dylan Wiliam


Formative assessment is not something we give kids; it is a process we engage in to help our students take ownership over their own learning. At Bellingham High School, we are committed to increasing our graduation rate by closing the achievement gap. We are working hard at figuring out why a certain percentage of our students drop out, what have we done to support them, and what interventions are needed. 20 years of research has found that when classrooms regularly engaged in effective formative assessment “Students make significant learning gains – especially lower achieving students, teachers tend to be more reflective about their practice and more in touch with their students’ learning, and the process can improve student achievement more than other learning interventions including one-on-one tutoring, reduced class size or cooperative learning.” Black and Wiliam (1998) and others (e.g., Shepard et al., 2005).

Knowing this, we decided to engage our staff in deepening their understanding of the formative assessment process through a book study on Embedded Formative Assessment by Dylan Wiliam.


Our first step in this process was to learn, as an administrative team, about formative assessment and how to help teachers implement the process in our classrooms. We engaged in our own book study and learned about the five key strategies of formative assessment that Wiliam discusses in his book. These key strategies are:

  • Clarifying, sharing, and understanding learning intentions and criteria for success
  • Engineering effective classroom discussions, activities, and learning tasks that elicit evidence of learning
  • Providing feedback that moves learning forward
  • Activating learners as instructional resources for one another
  • Activating learners as owners of their own learning

These strategies align very closely to the 5 Dimensions of Teaching and Learning in our instructional framework that our district has adopted. After our learning as a team, we realized that this was the next step in our building goal of closing the achievement gap.

We are fortunate, in our district, to have professional development days scheduled throughout the school year. One Friday per month students do not attend school, this day is dedicated to district focused learning, as well as building focused learning. We launched a school-wide book study on our first PD Friday on September 18. The book study was introduced and time was given for staff members to read chapter 2 of the book: The Case for Formative Assessment. We then came back together as a whole staff to share our learning. The guiding questions were: where do these strategies connect with our 5 Dimensions and what are you currently doing in your practice to support these strategies. Each staff member was given post-it notes and placed their responses on chart paper for each strategy. We will use these posters throughout the year. The other chapters of the book were assigned for different months of the year. We will either have our department chairs facilitate the book study sessions in meetings or we will discuss as a whole group, depending on the chapter.


We are very excited for this learning opportunity and how much the formative assessment process supports our current work around effective grading practices.  As a result, our staff is embedding research-informed strategies routinely in their lessons.

NCSM Guest bloggers

Jeanette Grisham and Ryland Huff – Assistant Principals, Bellingham High School, Bellingham, WA

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