This article first appeared on the REL West blog and is posted here with permission.

Formative assessment is a set of practices that have a positive effect on students’ academic achievement and that enable teachers and students to examine how learning is progressing throughout a lesson or series of lessons, so that teaching and learning activities can be adjusted as needed.[1] Formative assessment practices include: establishing clear learning goals and success criteria, questioning strategies, student self-assessment, descriptive teacher and peer student feedback, and a collaborative classroom learning culture.[2]

In November 2020, IES released a study by REL West about teachers’ use of formative assessment practices and students’ use of self-regulated learning strategies in three Arizona school districts. This was followed by a REL West webinar in December on the same topic. During the webinar, Pam Betten, Chief Academic Officer in Sunnyside Unified School District (USD) in Tucson, Arizona, described lessons learned from her district’s efforts to promote and expand effective formative assessment practices in classrooms. REL West spoke with Betten to learn more about her district’s journey.

How did you establish Formative Assessment as a priority in your district?

Our superintendent, Steve Holmes, emphasizes the need for all of our students to have their own knowledge and values validated in their learning experiences, and he sees formative assessment as a way to make that happen. In 2015, we introduced formative assessment to try to reimagine the student’s role as a learner, specifically as a way to help our students develop agency, identity, and purpose, in service of equity. Soon after, responding to an invitation from the Arizona Department of Education, teams of teachers engaged in a pilot of a new online formative assessment course. We quickly recognized the need to also support our school leaders in this work, and the next year all principals and district leaders participated in the online course as well. We now have some level of formative assessment implementation in all 21 of our schools, and there are 10 schools that have ALL of their staff engaged on a consistent basis. Superintendent Holmes explains it this way: “Learning happens collectively and together, despite whatever role that you may play in the organization.”

What structures did you set up for teachers to talk about their work?

The two primary structures that Sunnyside USD relies on to support teacher learning are video study group meetings and collaborative grade-level or department meetings. In video study, teachers record videos of their daily classroom practice, post a clip from a recent lesson that they want feedback on, and then explore that clip with peers. The work supports inquiry, reflection, and the use of evidence. Collaboration in the video study groups “de-privatizes education,” one of our teacher leaders explained. “Teachers are giving each other feedback, it’s not just about leaders giving feedback.” In grade-level or department meetings, Sunnyside USD teachers collaboratively plan lessons and units, share artifacts of learning, and refine their use of different available instructional resources and tools focusing on formative assessment concepts.

What were leaders’ roles in this effort? How did they use walkthroughs for discussions about learning?

Formative assessment has been the primary focus of Sunnyside USD’s professional learning for school and district leaders for five years. Districtwide leadership meetings center on the knowledge, skills, and dispositions that our leaders need to support changes in instructional practice and shifts in the student role, with a consistent emphasis on the message that “there is no hierarchy in learning.” Structured administrator walkthroughs—known as “cadre walks”— are commonplace across Sunnyside USD, and are always based on a consistent set of guiding questions and observation framework that are explicitly focused on the formative assessment concepts. Classroom doors are open to all, and site leaders are all expected to know where each of their teachers is in their learning journey towards student agency and formative assessment. A key goal is ensuring that all site leaders can observe, capture, and understand evidence across classrooms, specifically regarding their teachers’ actions and how their students are engaging in their learning.

How did the coaching you received from REL West on your formative assessment data impact your work with schools and teachers?

Sunnyside leaders are using the results of REL West’s 2020 study to reexamine and refocus our professional learning and coaching efforts with schools and teachers. An initial step will involve convening local instructional coaches to discuss and understand why there were stronger associations between peer feedback and self-assessment practices and student self-regulated learning in our elementary and STEM classrooms in comparison with other Sunnyside classroom settings.

How have teachers had to shift their formative assessment practices in the current COVID-19 world?

In August 2020, some teachers and leaders said, “I’m not sure we can keep our focus on the formative work in this environment.” That lasted for about ten seconds. This is the work. This is who we are. This is the best thing we do. I’m so grateful that we have the foundation to be able to put this into play. It was not “pull back,” but “lean in.” And as we gained more confidence leaning in and teachers got into the rhythm, their formative assessment practice deepened, even though we have some schools who are deeper in the work and some teachers more involved than others. What’s starting to take hold is their understanding of these concepts and their ability to implement them deeply, not just in a surface-level way like, “Let’s just give feedback” or “Let’s have the kids self-assess,” but really to move their students’ learning and their agency forward.

Teachers, especially in a distance learning setting, have to be crystal clear on what it is they want that learning chunk to be for that day. Forcing us to teach remotely focuses teachers on identifying what that learning goal is. Now, most of what we do is adjust the approach or the progression of learning and keep that learning goal the same. That’s the beauty of formative assessment—it’s about where each kid is. And it’s about teachers noticing where each student is in that learning progression and being able to, in real time, make those instructional moves for the learner.

Related Resources

[1]Klute, M., Apthorp, H., Harlacher, J., & Reale, M. (2017). Formative assessment and elementary school student academic achievement: A review of the evidence (REL 2017–259). U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Central.

[2] Wylie, C., & Lyon, C. (2016). Using the Formative Assessment Rubrics, Reflection and Observation tools to support professional reflection on practice. Formative Assessment for Students and Teachers State Collaborative on Assessment and Student Standards of the Council of Chief State School Officers.