Following very strong academic gains shown during a pilot implementation of formative assessment, the principal of Ben Milam Elementary School in Dallas, Texas, wanted to implement and spread formative assessment as a core instructional practice. A key strategy was to establish a school-wide learning culture through which adults had a safe environment in which to:
- Explore evidence of practice and collectively deepen formative assessment practices
- Create opportunities for teachers to learn from one another to advance their learning
Ben Milam Elementary School experienced a dramatic shift in the demographics of its students when school boundaries were redrawn in 2016. These redrawn boundaries meant that the students Ben Milam served came from new neighborhoods, leading to an increase in the percentage of students from low-income families and the inclusion of students whose families were experiencing homelessness and staying in a downtown shelter. These changes resulted in the school’s mobility rates rising from nine percent in 2016 to over 25 percent in 2020. To address these changes, the principal and leadership team learned strategies that focused on asset-based pedagogies in order to help teachers quickly assess what students know in order to effectively target daily instruction.
What we did
WestEd’s team supported formative assessment implementation and spread at Ben Milam Elementary School through four specific practices over three years. Each practice addressed a specific audience and focus in order to scale formative assessment implementation:
- Conduct leadership coaching
- Conduct classroom observation and reflection cycles
- Lead professional learning on peer observation and feedback cycles
- Support implementation of WestEd’s Student Agency in Learning (SAIL) online course
During leadership coaching, WestEd coaches demonstrated the use of rubrics to assess current formative assessment practice and provide teachers with feedback to guide the next steps in teacher learning. Coaching sessions included classroom walk-throughs, consensus tuning on the use of rubrics, and dialogue focused on teacher and student use of key formative assessment routines. Leadership coaching also included dialogue on school-level conditions for success, including strategies to deepen the schoolwide learning culture and the relationship of formative assessment, learner agency, and equity.
Classroom observation and reflection cycles
A WestEd formative assessment coach observed pilot teachers’ classrooms over two years, conducting rating observations with formative assessment rubrics and leading reflection conversations with teachers. These sessions included analyzing progress in key dimensions of formative assessment and setting goals with teachers to outline the next steps in their learning.
Professional learning on peer observation and feedback cycles
To build the leadership capacity of pilot teachers to conduct peer observation and reflection, WestEd led professional learning and modeling with Ben Milam’s first cohort of formative assessment pilot teachers. This professional learning series had two primary areas of focus: (1) to deepen routines to observe the developing teacher and student roles in formative assessment and (2) to use effective protocols for peer review and to deepen cultural norms for teachers to provide one another with feedback on current practice.
Implementation of SAIL online course
To support the shared understanding and spread of formative assessment to all teachers at Ben Milam, WestEd supported the school-level implementation of the Student Agency in Learning (SAIL) blended course. SAIL is a year-long formative assessment course designed to support teacher learning, inquiry, and practice in core elements of formative assessment: the use of learning goals and success criteria, eliciting and interpreting evidence, strategies for evidence use, and engaging students in formative assessment practices through peer feedback and self-assessment.
Ben Milam Elementary School’s principal and pilot teachers have demonstrated evidence of advanced formative assessment practices that have shifted students’ experience as learners. In 2020, Ben Milam became a demonstration site for formative assessment in Dallas ISD, where they have led site-based walk-throughs, teacher dialogue sessions, and student panels to describe what has changed in their learning culture and classroom practice to support shifts in how students learn.
A tangible result of this commitment on the part of teachers and leaders at Ben Milam is an increase in student test scores over the three years of practicing formative assessment. Ben Milam received a grade of A for academics from the state of Texas in 2020. On academics alone, Ben Milam increased their academic ratings based on the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) test from 71 to 91, growing double digits.
What we learned
Our goal with this project was to support the Dallas ISD in implementing formative assessment through a complex piloting model funded by the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation. Being able to work intensively and consistently over three years with Ben Milam Elementary confirmed for us the principles that ensure the successful implementation of formative assessment in the classroom:
- Leaders learning alongside teachers has significant value, particularly in how it models a learning culture among adults.
- Peer dialogue is a highly effective core strategy for deepening both teacher and student roles in formative assessment.
- Creating mindset shifts that support teachers in moving from instructional practices that are deficit-based (remediation-focused) to practices that are asset-based (building on what students know) is strengthened when (1) structures are established that allow for ongoing reflection on teacher practice and (2) teachers develop new dialogue and reflection norms and skills in order to engage in reflection and provide rich feedback to peers that moves learning forward.