Our team at WestEd, Formative Insights: Assessment for Learning, has been working with teachers, academic coaches, and educational leaders from schools, districts and states to strengthen the student role in learning through formative assessment. This post shares insights from those engaged in a unique partnership between the Arizona Department of Education and Sunnyside Unified School District, designed to strengthen shared knowledge and inform statewide practice in formative assessment. Panelist reflections include ideas from teachers, principals and a state department leader about the value of this partnership, and the positive impact of this partnership on state instruction and assessment policy.
Since 2015, the Arizona Department of Education (ADE) has partnered with WestEd to develop district and school capacity to implement formative assessment in Arizona. With support from the West Comprehensive Center and the Regional Education Laboratory West, Arizona districts, including Sunnyside Unified School District (SUSD) have learned alongside the state to inform state, district and school-level policy and practice in formative assessment.
In October 2021, Arizona educators and leaders participated in a National Council on Measurement in Education (NCME) panel to discuss their learning and shared perspectives on this unique school-district-state partnership. The panel, titled “Redefining the Student Role in Classroom Assessment: Policies and Practices to Strengthen Learner Agency,” was moderated by Lorrie Shepard, distinguished professor from the University of Colorado Boulder’s Department of Education. Panelists included two SUSD teacher leaders (Anissa Jimenez & Larissa Peru), two SUSD secondary Principals (Angelica Duddleston & William Kotter), and Sean Ross, the Deputy Associate Superintendent from the Arizona Department of Education.
State Leaders Learning Alongside Teachers, School Leaders and District Leaders
Between 2015–2018, ADE recruited districts to pilot implementation of three WestEd online courses in formative assessment practices. Through these efforts to spread formative assessment in Arizona, more than 2000 teachers and numerous ADE leaders learned and applied formative assessment practices. Sean Ross articulated that learning formative assessment alongside teachers and school leaders gave him a unique opportunity to better understand his role at the state level regarding how to scale this work in schools across the state.
“There is sometimes resistance to the idea of formative assessment. That it seems like too big a task or too big a lift. We’ve learned that it really isn’t. Once the kids have the vocabulary, and internalize and understand themselves as learners, and understand clearly what they are to learn and how to demonstrate that learning, then they’re able to move themselves and each other forward. That in turn moves the teacher forward, the system forward, and the state forward. The beauty is, we are learners right along with Sunnyside… it has to be that way.”
Located in a culturally and linguistically rich community, SUSD is surrounded by two First Nations and shares a border with Mexico. Most students in Sunnyside (84%) identify as Hispanic/Latiné, are of Mexican heritage, and come from a lower income bracket. SUSD introduced formative assessment early in the state’s efforts to support school and district professional learning, envisioning formative assessment as a way to strengthen the district’s commitment to students through practices that deepen student agency and identity.
Over time, SUSD and ADE leaders have had ongoing dialogue and learning opportunities to strengthen understanding of formative assessment; inform state-level curriculum, instruction, and assessment policies; and integrate formative assessment within state-led professional learning. This panel presentation offered key lessons learned and perspectives to inform the field about policy and practice partnerships.
The Power of the Principal
Early in the process, Sunnyside district leaders integrated formative assessment learning into weekly principal meetings. The goal was that principals would learn alongside their teachers to understand both the teacher and student role shifts that are the hallmark of formative assessment. Angelica Duddleston, principal at Desert View High School, reflected on her journey with formative assessment, which she says helped her develop into a vulnerable and open leader that sees herself as an equal learner to teachers and staff in working to increase student agency and identity.
“[Formative assessment] has helped me rethink what teaching and learning looks like in the classroom… We do a very good job of training our kids how to be successful students in a compliant way. Now, we’re starting to see a shift in how students can be successful learners.”
Similarly, William Kotter, principal at Challenger Middle School, outlined his vision to focus on developing student agency in the classroom. His team is currently developing strategies to support teachers to create daily lessons that provide structured opportunities for exploring what it means to self-assess and use evidence to support next steps in learning.
“Our school wide goal right now is what do we do and how do we support students so they can talk about their learning.”
He highlighted teachers’ focus to integrate peer-feedback and self-assessment, two formative assessment strategies that strengthen students’ use of evidence and promote a rich collaborative culture of learning at his school.
Teacher Expertise in Developing Student Identity, Learning Culture and Student Agency
Larissa Peru, a math teacher at Desert View High School explained her role as a facilitator within the formative assessment process for both her students and colleagues. The formative assessment work has led Ms. Peru to rethink how she approaches deepening her own (and peers) expertise to impact the way students interact with the learning and each other.
“I’m encouraged by the fact that this [formative assessment] work gives our students power over their learning, and they’re not seeing themselves as just good students, but they’re developing an identity in the classroom that allows them to grow, and feel confident, and be successful when they leave my class.
This link between teacher learning and student learning is a critical aspect of Sunnyside’s approach to teacher and leader learning, as well as fundamental to their partnership with the state. Ms. Peru understands that each student is a unique and valuable learner in her classroom community, and the classroom culture she creates is intended to strengthen each student’s individual identity, where they feel confident to grow and make mistakes in their learning.
In response to Lorrie Shepard’s question about what parents of Sunnyside students are excited about as their student’s education is fostered throughout the district, Anissa Jimenez, a second-grade teacher at Summit View Elementary, offered insights from her experiences with parents of her students.
“The skills that transfer best to the home and that parents are most excited about when we discuss them are the self-regulation skills that we teach in order to create the culture of a student led classroom, like students advocating for themselves, like students seeking out a different learning environment when what they’re doing or where they are isn’t working out or they’re not being successful there. When I point those sorts of things out, the learning behaviors that students are doing in the classroom, parents are really excited about that and they always have this look of pride on their faces when they hear that their students are taking charge of their learning in the classroom.”
Collaboratively Elevating Student Agency
As the panel discussion came to an end, Mr. Ross gave credit to the on-going work and learning of Sunnyside students, teachers, and administrators. He emphasized that through this long-standing partnership, SUSD has provided numerous opportunities for dialogue and reflection that have informed state level educational policies in Arizona, including a newly developed Teaching and Learning Framework that integrates formative assessment as a core practice within classroom instruction and assessment.
Changing the traditional educational models requires that leaders at each level of the system benefit from finding new ways of teaching and learning that gives students agency in their learning and reposition students as a core strategy to achieve equity. This partnership has provided ongoing dialogue to nurture these shifts.