In highly effective formative assessment practice, it is very difficult for those just learning formative assessment to be able to see what the teacher is doing differently to strengthen students’ motivations, confidence, and learning behaviors. As a result, teachers benefit from visiting classrooms, being able to see how students interact, and talking with other teachers about how they have developed and implemented these skills.
To create the conditions for spreading formative assessment within an urban district, Austin Independent School District (AISD) leaders, school leaders, and teachers sought to establish a formative assessment demonstration site to showcase what Barrington Elementary teachers had learned in the pilot, and to introduce educators across the district to formative assessment.
Barrington Elementary in Austin, Texas, has just under 500 students and is a Title 1 school with nearly 96% of its students facing economic disadvantage. Seventy-eight percent of students are also English Learners. The school provides dual-language instruction in English and Spanish.
Barrington is one of four schools selected by AISD to pilot formative assessment as part of a multiyear foundation-funded initiative. Teachers in pilot sites implemented formative assessment and developed new instructional practices and roles for students. To spread formative assessment more widely in the district, AISD designated Barrington as a formative assessment demonstration site, a school that teachers from across the district could visit in order to better understand the practice and see formative assessment within the district context.
What we did
We designed and implemented a professional learning institute in which lead teachers could support teachers, school leaders, and district leaders to explore specific changes in the students’ roles as learners.
Throughout the Professional Learning institute, teachers engaged in an analysis of student learning behaviors related to key student-level formative assessment practice such as discourse, self-assessment, and peer feedback. Teachers analyzed shifts in the students’ roles as learners, including how engaged students were in discourse with peers, and what motivation and ownership students displayed during learning. In daily teacher-led sessions, cross-grade teams explored their understanding of the relationship of formative assessment, learning culture, agency, and student academic identities and came to consensus about what visitors would see in each of these four areas when they visited their classrooms that practice formative assessment.
The professional learning goals were two-fold:
- Deepen the shared understanding of how explicit formative assessment practices strengthen students’ motivation to learn and promote student agency and equity
- Document evidence of current teacher and student practices related to the guiding principles of formative assessment: classroom learning culture, student identity, formative assessment, and agency.
Institute Teacher “I’m so glad we are doing this [formative assessment] work — not just for me, but for my students. Everyone is equal in the class; every student can share what they know. I know more about my students [now], but what I love is that they know more about each other.”
- At a virtual-site visit by a neighboring school, lead teachers highlighted the value of what Barrington teachers had shared, including the following reflections:
- “My thinking changed on what formative assessment is. Listening to students [is] powerful.”
- “I see formative assessment as a mindset.”
- “Barrington teachers showed us what student-led instruction can look like.”
- Barrington teachers were poised to use formative assessment to deepen student learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. District leaders and teachers collaborated to showcase effective online learning and disseminated best practices throughout the district channels
- In follow-up classroom observations by WestEd’s Formative Insights Team, we observed online lessons that showcased key formative assessment practices, including discourse and peer review of work.
- The work WestEd and Barrington did together was impactful for the teachers who are rarely singled out to demonstrate their learning and work. There was a special power in this group which came through in how they felt honored by our work and learning together.
What we learned
In the early stages of formative assessment implementation, teachers focus on developing fluency with the technical practices of formative assessment: crafting daily learning goals and success criteria and eliciting and using evidence to guide instruction. In more advanced practice, teacher learning involves deeper reflection on their own mindset and beliefs. This reflection is necessary to shift the learning experience towards student agency. Through our professional learning of this institute’s model, our team explored new ways to engage teachers in rich reflections about their own roles, and about what has changed in their own beliefs and mindsets so that in order to they were able to strengthen opportunities for their students to learn how to learn.