The WestEd Formative Insights: Assessment for Learning team has been working for the last ten years with teachers and school and district leadership to implement formative assessment broadly and sustainably. Research shows that formative assessment is a powerful methodology to develop student agency for all students. Anchored in equity, formative assessment equips students with tools to monitor and enhance their own learning, consolidating a culture of collaboration that celebrates previous knowledge and learning for all identities. Sunnyside Unified School District has been implementing formative assessment in their schools since 2015, grounded on the strong belief that all students need to have their own knowledge and values validated in their learning experiences. Recently, we visited Sunnyside Unified School District to learn with and from teachers, students, and the school community about the role of student agency in formative assessment practice. This post shares insights and reflections from our two interns, Yesenia Ayala and Gabriela Fiore Bonicio, who engaged in conversations with teachers, students, and site leadership on the role of student agency and intentional practice in learning.
The role of student agency and equity
Research confirms the positive outcomes for students who demonstrate a high sense of student agency. Students create educational experiences that allow them to communicate, solve problems, seek support and feedback, and advocate for their learning and the learning of others. The building blocks in support of learning agency develop and strengthen over time as students engage in the practice through daily routines and through educators’ intentional pedagogy. Through the formative assessment process, it is critical to cultivate inclusive learning environments that allow students to feel empowered and seen. Yesenia Ayala reflects on the way the site visit impacted her views on the connection between student agency and equity.
For the last couple of months, this internship opportunity has provided me with a space to learn about formative assessment and how it can positively impact student learning. As we visited the Sunnyside Unified School District, I engaged in conversations with students, teachers, site leaders, and the administration, and those interactions enhanced my understanding of the challenges in the implementation process of formative assessment and articulating student agency. Simultaneously, the district’s thoughtfulness and intentionality for this practice provide context as the district truly believes in the power of agentic learner experience.
As a first-generation Latina college graduate myself who attended K-12 public schools, I see the ways in which student agency can contribute to equity efforts. Students who come from minoritized backgrounds face structural barriers navigating educational systems. Developing student agency in their K-12 education can provide a set of essential skills as they enter postsecondary spaces, the workforce, and society. As Sunnyside Unified School District teachers are in different stages of adopting formative assessment practices, students were able to articulate differences in their role as learners in more traditional classrooms as compared to classrooms where teachers were further along in their use of daily formative assessment routines – such as students’ use of evidence through peer feedback, discourse, and self-assessment. Students identified shifts in both their role as a learner and how developing skills of agency has positively impacted their educational and personal journeys.
The role of intentional practice
Conditions to implement formative assessment successfully include the understanding that it is a set of practices which evolve over a long-term commitment and are nurtured through supporting a system of culture, structures, and professional development. Leadership is crucial to provide these consistent systems. While it can be challenging to experience setbacks or slow evolution, formative assessment is a highly effective tool to develop student agency and foster learning. Celebrating advances in the implementation process and seeing a positive impact on learners can help to make this long-term process an inspiring one.
Teachers might be particularly stimulated by formative assessment as they get the opportunity to evolve their practice and see their impact firsthand. Gabriela Fiore Bonicio reflects on intentional practice in a complex and dynamic environment when she visited Sunnyside Unified School District.
I have been learning so much about formative assessment since I started at WestEd in January, 2022. Researching, discussing, and seeing formative assessment practices on site was truly a unique experience that I would not get elsewhere. I was lucky enough to work with teachers who are highly experienced and knowledgeable about formative assessment, and had the opportunity to learn from teachers to better understand how they skillfully navigate through the planned and the unexpected while keeping formative assessment practices in place.
It was particularly inspiring to learn how teachers frame their role in the learning environment. Teachers see themselves as a resource that students can use to enhance their learning. Through deliberate acts of practice, they expand and retract as the context evolves, using modeling and feedback to enhance self-regulation, self-efficacy, and metacognition in the classroom. Remembering how traditional and controlling my K-12 education was, I could only be happy for these teachers’ students. Personal experiences can be powerful, and I hope teachers who are attempting to adopt formative assessment practices can find emotional anchors to keep resilient and moving forward even when setbacks happen.