What We’ve Learned From Two Years of Piloting Formative Assessment

By: Katy Escandell and Dr. Lisa Goodnow

For the last two years, we have been leading a district team here at Austin ISD that has worked with four of our schools to pilot an initiative focused on developing a deep practice of formative assessment. The initiative, titled How I Know and supported by a partnership with the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, has been an experience that has deepened our understanding both of how to effectively pilot initiatives like this and of the impact that formative assessment can have on student learning and classroom culture.

When we joined the initiative (along with Dallas ISD and Tulsa Public Schools), we knew that we wanted to be actively encouraging the practice of formative assessment in our schools. We thought this would be a great way to study how formative assessment works on both a practical and conceptual level and how to scale it.

Our two years working on the initiative have proven to us that the changes that can occur within a formative assessment culture have not been oversold. Students truly do become more engaged, more self-directed, and more aware of (and confident in addressing) their own growth areas. Our teachers and team have been featured in a number of pieces, exploring topics such as how our focus on SEL naturally aligned with formative assessment and how a field trip to an exemplar district helped our team deepen their understanding of formative assessment practices.

Looking back, we ended up learning even more than we had anticipated, and we’re excited to be at a point of reflection where we can share our learnings with the field.

The First Year: Building Plans and Relationships

The Plan

Initially, our plan focused on establishing relationships between teachers, members of our district design team, and WestEd coaches. Our intention was to streamline the implementation process and the teachers’ professional learning, while working to avoid putting additional strain on school leaders.

We focused on using a blended learning platform with WestEd. Their Formative Assessment Insights learning modules provided our teachers with the opportunity to work independently by learning the pedagogy of formative assessment and experientially by applying and reflecting on their learning in classrooms with their students. The teachers have met together as professional learning communities on campus and have participated in a larger cross-campus meeting (a “Community of Practice”). The Community of Practice forum provided teachers with the chance to share their learning across campuses, grade levels, and content areas. The plan called for the teachers to complete two cycles of learning in the spring semester of the first school year of the initiative.

Our project plan and timeline structure. The full version can be viewed here.

As we went through this process, we found that our teachers wanted more support from their school leaders for their day-to-day activities. Some of the more nuanced details of formative assessment like writing learning goals, linking success criteria, and improving feedback were proving challenging for them. So we began to work more directly with school leaders and administrators to help them understand how they could support teachers throughout this process. As a response, we adjusted the initial plan by adding a two day workshop for our principals.

Accordingly, we heard similar reports from the two other districts taking part in How I Know (Dallas ISD and Tulsa Public Schools), and this became a big lesson learned for us. From this point forward, when we think of scaling formative assessment, we plan to spend a year training administrators and school leaders before bringing it to teachers.

We also shifted to a model of job-embedded professional learning that occurred monthly instead of over a longer period of time. This shift allowed teachers to more rapidly try, fail, adjust, and try again.

We further added “teacher listening sessions.” These were designed to be a forum for our teachers to both meet with each other to discuss and learn as well as give direct feedback to the design team which allowed us to be more responsive to their needs. This has the added benefit of making sure that teachers feel valued; at the last session, they shared with us that they were enthusiastic about helping to share what they have learned with their staff and even staff from other campuses. From here, we saw a big improvement in the engagement and execution of formative assessment practices.

Roles and Relationships

We organized our design team in a way that several of the design team members adopted campuses to support. The idea behind this approach was to have one person check in monthly with the campus leadership and teachers and then report the overall health of the project to the larger design team. While this approach worked well in the first year of our project, as mentioned previously, we added the teacher listening sessions to allow teachers to speak directly to the entire design team. This extra layer of communication allowed the teachers to have space away from their busy schedules to truly reflect on “how things are going.”

There are a number of other details that are worth highlighting here that might otherwise fly under the radar. One of these is that support and interest from district leadership was very important–for example, having the support of our associate superintendent of academics for SEL ended up being important for keeping things running smoothly at the higher levels. Another important detail behind the success of this structure has been engaging teachers as thinkers rather than just as learners.

At the end of the first year of the initiative, with our project plan refined, a solid understanding of roles, and a burgeoning understanding of the supports we needed at different levels, our focus in year two shifted to building new supports, refining techniques and processes for professional development, and enhancing the role of technology and data in facilitating the practice.

Year 2: Getting the Details Right

Support Mechanisms at the Teacher, School, and District Level

We started at a high level thinking conceptually about what we could do to support the people working at each level of our organization chart.

For those at the district level, it was important to have external parties that we could turn to for perspective and guidance. Education First was helpful for this–they provided us with the chances for exactly the type of formative reflection and level-setting that we needed.

At the school level, we focused on giving administrators and school leaders the flexibility to encourage their teachers to focus on small changes in their instruction instead of overhauling their entire approach to teaching. This allowed teachers to collaborate in smaller groups and make changes that felt natural and embedded in their teaching. It took away the pressure to have an outcome and allowed teachers to engage their iterative design thinking muscles. By taking the scope of the project down to the teacher level it made the teacher learning time more valuable and focused.

In year three, we hope to create a leadership group that will meet as a professional learning committee to discuss how this project impacts the organizational structures of a school and the challenges that come with change management. We believe that creating a structure for school leaders similar to the teacher listening sessions will allow them to share in and develop each others’ strengths and priorities.

Professional Learning and Development

Our approach to teacher professional learning and development in year two built upon our project plan from year one and focused mainly on adding two new strategies: helping teachers develop a deep understanding of the FARROP rubric and hosting teacher-to-teacher observation sessions. In our second year, we utilized a program published by Learning Sciences International (LSI) in partnership with Dylan Wiliam. The two-year professional development pack, Embedding Formative Assessment, is designed to be teacher led. Our teachers wanted to have the work around formative assessment practices directly linked to their professional learning collaboration, and this program gave the teachers a regular guided hour-long discussion about how to transform their knowledge of formative assessment into actionable goals in their teaching. This monthly learning collaboration was linked to a cycle of goal setting, trial and error, peer-to-peer observation, and reflection.

We saw a positive impact on teacher engagement as a result of these practices, and after reviewing our final observation data provided by the project, it was noted that looking into year three we would need to continue to have direct professional learning focused on the dimensions of formative assessment in order to see growth in teacher practice.

The reason we made the effort to give teachers a deep understanding of the FARROP rubric was that it provides measurable “look-fors” in reaching the deeper promises of formative assessment, such as of student ownership of their own self-directed learning. We’ve found that building this deep understanding with the ultimate goal of a deep cultural shift in teachers’ classrooms has been a slow and steady process that required biting off the rubric in small pieces. When it comes down to it, everyone has to be on the bus at the end of the lesson.

The peer-to-peer observation tool provided by LSI, which contains space for evidence to be collected by observers, the observers’ notes, and next steps for both the teacher and observer, was also very popular.

We are often thanked by teachers for this chance to collaborate and observe–they view it as a very valuable experience to go and watch someone else, and leave feeling empowered by watching how formative assessment is happening on another campus, with another population. Guidance from WestEd was very helpful in supporting teachers throughout these processes.

Technology and Data

This last year our team began exploring approaches to technology and data that will help current initiative teachers continue to hone their practice, while also providing new teachers with more tools to support their first steps.

The teachers who elected to participate in the pilot with a technology goal chose to begin by integrating devices into their formative assessment practices. Because the devices were not already readily available, the work of coaching on actual formative assessment instructional practices leveraging technology was delayed. Purchasing devices was our priority and a challenging undertaking due to our district purchasing processes. We began with teachers first identifying the ways in which technology could help them achieve their formative assessment practice goals and identifying the success criteria. In retrospect, we reflected that the goals and success criteria developed by teachers would have been more beneficial if revisited throughout the year with metrics that teachers were using to track their growth.

Our hope is to increase opportunities for teachers to build stronger relationships with our district’s Technology Design Coaches. Our Technology Design Coaches would also benefit from more professional learning on formative assessment practices. At the end of the year, we provided an opportunity to reflect on their progress with their technology goals. We prompted them to use their defined success criteria to self assess their growth. Teachers were also asked to adjust their goals for year three and describe the support needed to achieve increased success going forward. This information will be used to help inform our decisions and systems of support. Although it was challenging to have individual goals for each teacher, we feel that this helped us meet and honor teachers where they were with their technology confidence and competence. We feel that this also reinforces our philosophy that we don’t lead with technology or use technology for technology’s sake. By eliminating the access to device problem, our hope is that we will be able to focus on coaching teachers in making sound technology integration decisions rather than being overly concerned with device management and access.

Year 3: Scaling and Reflection

Overall, our work within How I Know has helped us feel confident moving forward that we will be able to scale the work to more schools and impact more students through the development of formative assessment cultures.

Impact on Students Today

First and foremost when planning next steps, we wanted to consider the impact on students. While we haven’t seen a big shift in learning directly, we have seen a big shift in student engagement. Students have a goal now, and they’re more invested in their experience.

The change has been positive, but not drastic. Really, though, that’s not what we were looking for–our formative assessment focus has always been more of an investment that would continue to grow. And we think that’s an important mindset. Deep formative assessment practice requires the growth of culture and mindsets over time to truly teach our students to learn how to learn.

Plans for Moving Forward

Moving forward, we plan to select the next wave of schools based on leadership buy-in and the quality of existing professional learning communities. We’ve found that the work requires a significant amount of teacher planning, and this happens most effectively when teachers are able to work on Learner Goals together to build strategies and mutual understanding.

Additionally, we’ve asked teachers currently involved in the initiative to set goals for their own pedagogy and learning for next year. We want them to set goals for their students in terms of learning and activities, and also in terms of engagement in actively creating classroom cultures. We believe this will help them get more deeply into the student-driven portions of the FARROP.

As mentioned above, we also plan to spend our first year in any new schools working primarily with administrators and principals to ensure that they are onboard and ready to support and lead teachers.

Top Three Lessons Learned

Upon reflection, we have learned three key lessons that we think are worth sharing:

  1. Go deep. There can be significant overlap between formative assessment and other pieces, but you need to go deep with formative assessment to realize its full promises.
  2. Get buy-in. Make sure teachers have bought in, make sure they’re supported by their school leaders, and make time for them to get into each others’ classrooms.
  3. Develop the mindset. It’s important that everyone go into the work with a design-thinking mindset, ready to learn and iterate with one another–having a question, trying an answer, and then pivoting away to get deeper.

Overall, we are very much looking forward to seeing where formative assessment takes our students as this culture takes root across our district. If you are a district official considering formative assessment, we would encourage you to pursue it.

For more, see:

Katy Escandell is Administrative Supervisor at Austin Independent School District.

Dr. Lisa Goodnow is Associate Superintendent of Academics and Social & Emotional Learning at Austin Independent School District. 

This post is a part of a series focused on the “How I Know: Designing Meaningful Formative Assessment” initiative sponsored by the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation. See the How I Know website (www.formativeassessmentpractice.org) and join the conversation on Twitter using #HowIKnow or #FormativeAssessment.

Stay in-the-know with innovations in learning by signing up for the weekly Smart Update. This post includes mentions of a Getting Smart partner. For a full list of partners, affiliate organizations and all other disclosures, please see our Partner page.

Guest Author

Getting Smart loves its varied and ranging staff of guest contributors. From edleaders, educators and students to business leaders, tech experts and researchers we are committed to finding diverse voices that highlight the cutting edge of learning.

Discover the latest in learning innovations

Sign up for our weekly newsletter.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. All fields are required.