For many teachers, assessment means giving a test at the end of a unit to measure students’ retention and learning. But such tests represent only a snapshot of learning and do not always help teachers and students see the complete picture. The results typically come too late to change students’ academic outcomes and can leave a handful of critical questions unanswered: How did the learning occur? When and why did some students fail to grasp the key concepts and skills? What could teachers and students have done to identify learning challenges and take responsive action to overcome them?

“You can’t teach effectively if you don’t know where students are in their thinking and skill development,” says Margaret Heritage, senior scientist at WestEd.

To get a more complete view of student learning, educators are increasingly focusing on formative assessment, a set of practices that enable students and teachers to examine how learning is developing throughout the course of a lesson so they can make any necessary adjustments to teaching and learning activities.

“Teachers need to understand how their students’ learning is progressing, so they can consistently align their instruction to meet students’ needs,” says Heritage, an expert in the field who has authored books such as Formative Assessment in Practice: A Process of Inquiry and Action, published by Harvard Education Press. “In formative assessment, the focus is on informing learning, rather than measuring it or summing it up. When implemented effectively, it provides teachers with the substantive insights they need to help keep students on track to achieving learning goals.”

This sort of responsive approach to instruction is particularly useful in the current education landscape, says Heritage, as it enables the kind of deep learning required by rigorous college- and career-ready standards, which reflect heightened expectations for all students. However, while formative assessment is gaining ground in the United States, its effective implementation is far from widespread. One reason for that, says Heritage, is the absence of high-quality, sustainable, and affordable professional learning designed to support teachers in successfully implementing formative assessment practices in their classrooms.

To address that gap, Heritage and other WestEd specialists developed an interactive online course focused on formative assessment as a pedagogical practice to engage and support all students. Funded by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the intensive six-month course, Formative Assessment Insights (FAI), was offered to K–12 educators in six western states beginning in fall 2015. The goal? Simple: provide a scalable form of professional development that transforms how participating teachers and their students engage in teaching and learning.

Helping educators transform their classroom practice

About 750 educators, working in teams that enabled ongoing collaboration and peer feedback, completed the digital learning course. In post-course surveys, teachers reported that the course — the largest scale-up of formative assessment professional learning ever attempted in the United States — influenced their classroom practice. The majority also found that it substantially changed their understanding of formative assessment practices and how to use them more frequently in their classrooms.

Through surveys and focus groups, participants described how they achieved a greater awareness of the role of formative assessment and why it must be integrated throughout the learning process. “I used to think that formative assessments were what you gave at the end of a unit,” noted one participant, “but now I know formative assessments represent an ongoing process of collecting evidence to inform and enhance student learning.”

Another participant reflected, “I used to think that giving feedback to students at the end of a project or test was sufficient. Now I realize that the feedback I give students during the learning — focused on the task and what a student needs to do to improve — is what really matters. I’ve also learned the importance of peer feedback and student self-reflection as ways to promote active learning.”

In post-course surveys, nine percent of participants reported having collected evidence of student learning during each lesson before they started FAI, whereas 75 percent reported doing so by the time they had completed the professional learning series. Educators who completed the course also reported making other changes to their teaching, including planning for instruction based on learning goals and success criteria (88 percent), providing more descriptive feedback to students (85 percent), and placing more responsibility on students for their own learning (83 percent).

“The formative assessment process works so well for any curriculum. It has the power to transform education,” says Beth Gaffney, academic coach for Chandler Unified, a school district in Arizona in which educators at 30 of the district’s 42 schools participated in FAI. “I would challenge any teacher to look for a reason not to use this in the classroom. It works, and it works at every grade level with every student.”

Engaging students in their learning

The FAI course is based on extensive research and practice that show the value of formative assessment to improve academic achievement. When used effectively, formative assessment involves teachers setting clear lesson goals and success criteria, helping students monitor their learning through peer and self-assessment, and using evidence of comprehension to make pedagogical responses to students’ learning needs. A crucial component of the course’s approach to formative assessment is the flow of feedback, which research has found to be one of the most influential factors in student learning. FAI refers to this flow as a “feedback loop,” and it involves three key questions: Where am I going? Where am I now? Where to next?

“This ongoing feedback loop helps teachers to be nimble in meeting their students’ learning needs,” Heritage says. For instance, teachers might obtain information about students’ conceptual understanding by observing students as they work in small groups, engaging individual students in one-on-one conferences as their classmates work independently, or facilitating a whole-class discussion to surface misconceptions. From there, the teacher could determine the need for a quick mini-lesson, a brief hands-on activity, or some sort of deeper dive into a specific topic.

“The formative assessment process works well for any curriculum — it has the power to transform education.”

The course also stresses the importance of giving students the strategies and tools to become engaged, independent learners. Gaffney says that showing teachers in Chandler how to involve students in understanding the goals of learning and monitoring their own progress — through self-reflection sheets, personal reading logs, and peer-assessment activities, for example — was one of the most positive aspects of the FAI experience. She believes promoting that sort of student engagement and self-direction is particularly important in order to help the district’s students thrive as they move forward in life.

“The world today doesn’t allow students to be passive recipients of information — when they go on to jobs and college, they will have to constantly sift through mountains of information and figure out how to get where they need to go,” says Gaffney. “Formative assessment pushes students to play an active role in their education through learning to identify their targets, monitor their learning, and understand what it takes to be successful.”

In Tucson about 280 teachers — representing all 22 schools in the Sunnyside School District — participated in the FAI course. Chief Academic Officer Pam Betten explains that, prior to completing WestEd’s course, many educators believed that formative assessment was defined by end-of-week quizzes that determined which students had or had not mastered targeted skills or standards. Now, says Betten, teachers see formative assessment as a powerful process that begins with lesson planning built around learning targets and success criteria, with a focus on putting students in control of their learning.

“Formative assessment has the potential to lead to exponential gains in our students’ achievement because it’s really about developing the concept of student agency,” Betten says. “We are working to get our students to be ‘creators,’ not just ‘consumers.’ We want them to figure out what they need to do next to move their learning forward. At its core, this process is shifting the ownership to the student.”

Spreading formative assessment practices

Betten says the school district plans to build on the lessons learned from WestEd’s professional learning experience by setting up laboratory classrooms where teachers can demonstrate and observe best practices in formative assessment. And because teachers in WestEd’s course were most successful when administrators supported their learning, the district also wants to involve more principals and instructional leaders in future formative assessment professional learning.

“Teachers need us, as leaders, to understand formative assessment,” says Betten, “so it becomes a part of what we all do every day.”

The crucial role of leadership support for formative assessment was one of the major lessons learned from the FAI course, according to Lenay Dunn, a WestEd senior research associate who has been evaluating the course’s impact. Because participation was voluntary, only about half of the 1,500 teachers who started the course completed it; among those who dropped out, 62 percent said they had not received supports such as release time, coaches, or incentives from their school and district leaders to support their involvement in the course (compared to 24 percent of course completers who reported not receiving those supports).

“All of the modules in the course are about great ways to engage students in their own learning,” says Dunn. “Ideally, then, school leaders should be supporting teachers in those same practices — so when they conduct classroom observations, they are thinking about how to help teachers integrate the formative assessment practices.”

To that end, notes Heritage, WestEd plans to expand upon previous formative assessment professional learning materials targeted to school leaders, as well as expanding the online FAI professional development series to include site-based support for schools.

All of these efforts to improve and spread formative assessment practices, says Heritage, are intended to put educators in the best possible position to help their students succeed: “Helping students develop the kind of lifelong learning skills fostered by formative assessment is critical for their future, and the future of our society.”