An appeal to state leaders to increase the use of formative assessment in classrooms.

If I Ruled the World… 

Jul 19, 2022

Three Suggestions for State Department Leaders to Increase Formative Assessment Practices in Classrooms

“If I ruled the world, I would mandate greater use of formative assessment practices in every classroom.” 

At the most recent CCSSO National Conference on Student Assessment (NCSA) I had the opportunity to present my “Firestarter” idea at the plenary session. I spent quite a bit of time thinking about the one thing I would want a group of state department of education leaders to remember when they returned home after the conference. As I planned the talk, I recalled one of my primary school teachers who often opined “If I ruled the world.” With that sentiment in mind, I began my presentation with “If I ruled the world, I would mandate greater use of formative assessment practices in every classroom.” 

This introduction, while deliberately overstated, probably surprised no one who is familiar with my research over the past 15 or more years at ETS. I have spent a good part of my professional life working with teachers to support the development of formative assessment practices and to understand the conditions under which those practices are most likely to flourish.

The Role of Formative Assessment in Supporting Pandemic Recovery

As we emerge from the pandemic and, hopefully, address the effects of COVID on student learning, I have been thinking about the role that formative assessment can play to support recovery. Decades of research (e.g., Black et al., 2007; Randel et al., 2011; Wiliam et al., 2004) demonstrate formative assessment’s positive impact on student learning, which gives me confidence that formative assessment can, now and in the future, support teachers as they recognize and meet the greater diversity of learning needs that they are facing due to the uneven learning opportunities that resulted from COVID.

Even though I don’t rule the world, I still wanted to give this group of state leaders the following three specific suggestions for how they can support the growth of formative assessment in classrooms in their states:

  • Publicly-shared examples of high-quality formative assessment practices
  • Extended and sustained professional learning opportunities
  • Policies and supporting practices 

What excited me most about sharing these ideas is that I could already point to work being done by state leaders gathered for lunch in the conference ballroom. These existence proofs demonstrate how state leaders can directly support schools and districts to engage in formative assessment. My hope was to spark ideas about how these three suggestions could be combined to amplify their individual effects.

  1. Publicly-shared examples of high-quality formative assessment practices

I often describe formative assessment in practice when I write about it for almost any audience. However, I recognize those descriptions are not as powerful as living examples that allow teachers to see, hear, and feel what high-quality formative assessment is like. 

I’ve been privileged to follow the journey in Maryland where leaders at the State Department are working to identify “Classrooms of Distinction”.  

In these classrooms, students and teachers are routinely engaged in formative assessment processes that can be observed by other educators from around the state. The featured teachers had to submit documentation and go through a round of classroom observation as part of the selection process. This first cohort of expert formative assessment practitioners are opening their classrooms to help other teachers understand more directly how these powerful classroom practices support student learning. I look forward to following this work as Maryland State Department leaders grow this program to identify more “classrooms of distinction” and capitalize on the learning opportunities that they will provide in Maryland.

  1. Extended and sustained professional learning opportunities

Simply having examples of high-quality formative assessment practices may not be enough for teachers to become expert formative assessment practitioners. Therefore, my second suggestion is sustained professional learning to help teachers translate and transfer those examples of practice into their own classrooms. 

One particularly significant effort at the state level has been the Formative Assessment for Michigan Educators (FAME) project. This state-funded initiative has been in place for over a decade, demonstrating a real commitment to teacher learning, school-based learning communities with coaching support, and learning resources that enable teachers to collaborate and learn together over time. This kind of teacher learning is a powerful tool for supporting and sustaining formative assessment practice, but it doesn’t happen without deliberate planning and resources. The state department of Michigan has demonstrated this commitment.

  1. Policies and supporting practices

Policy leaders should focus on creating structures and conditions that enable formative assessment to flourish. References to assessment – particularly formative assessment – need to be consistent across departments within a state department. My plea to state leaders and others involved in formative assessment: please make sure that you are not calling periodic assessments formative since doing so only causes confusion.

State department leaders can provide support for schools and districts to address issues that can cause incoherence with formative assessment practices. For example, grading has been described as the “third rail for schools,” but developing grading practices that are equitable can lead to important conversations about the value and role of formative assessment. Educators need opportunities to recognize the inherent unfairness of grading every piece of work while learning is still developing. 

Further, as part of addressing equitable grading and transparency in the meaning of a grade, teachers need to help students understand unit and class learning goals and how students and teachers can work together to identify progress in that learning. These conversations can naturally open space for more formative assessment practices. 

State leaders in Oregon are tackling these issues and encouraging conversations about ways to rehumanize assessment and equitable grading.

Finally, all of the efforts described above will be a more valuable use of policy leaders’ time than trying to specify formative assessment practices in law. If formative assessment needs to be mentioned in any legislative language, that language must be coherent with the research on formative assessment.

Three Ideas. Now What?

The effects of COVID and interrupted schooling will be with us for a long time. Teachers need ways to understand what students are bringing to each new unit, whether from previous learning in school or from experiences with their families and communities, and to tailor learning accordingly to meet the diversity of learning needs. Formative assessment can help teachers do just that. The role of state leaders is changing from a focus on compliance and accountability assessment to finding ways to support important work happening in schools and districts. 

I encourage state leaders to look to the examples of their peers in Maryland, Michigan, and Oregon to find ways to help teachers and leaders develop and deepen their formative assessment practices by employing the three approaches discussed above, as well as other strategies. State leaders can create model resources that can be used by many districts and can bring expertise to districts struggling with capacity issues.

For those of you who work at the school or district level, I encourage you to consider what you might be able to do to support greater use of formative assessment in classrooms if you had support from your state department of education. How might they be able to work in your district to create resources that could be of support to other districts in your states – not to mandate their use but to offer opportunities at a scale that a school or district could not manage on its own? Reach out to assessment and instruction leaders at your state department. You never know what flame you might spark!

Caroline Wylie is a principal research scientist and co-lead of the K12 Learning, Teaching and Assessment research center at ETS. She is also a co-advisor to the CCSSO Balanced Assessment Systems collaborative. She recently co-authored the book Formative Assessment in the Disciplines: Framing a Continuum of Professional Learning with Margaret Heritage.

For references and additional reading see: 

Black, P. P. J., Harrison, C., Lee, C., Marshall, B., & Wiliam, D. (2007). Assessment for learning. New York, NY: Open University Press. 

Randel, B., Beesley, A. D., Anthorp, H., Clark, T. F., Wang, X., & Cicchinelli, L. F. et al. (2011). Classroom assessment for student learning: Impact on elementary school mathematics in the central region (NCEE 23011-4005). Washington, DC: National Center for Educational Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education, US Department of Education.; 

Heritage, M. (2021). Formative Assessment: Making It Happen In the Classroom (2nd edition) by Margaret Heritage. Corwin, A SAGE Company, Thousand Oaks, CA.

Heritage, M., & Wylie, E. C. (2020). Formative Assessment in the Disciplines Framing a Continuum of Professional Learning. Harvard Education Press.

Wiliam, D., Lee, C., Harrison, C., & Black, P. (2004). Teachers developing assessment for learning: Impact on student achievement. Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice, 11, 49–65.