Special Report

Arizona Leans In on Formative Assessment

By Liana Loewus — November 09, 2015 8 min read
Tiffany Palmer, a 4th grade teacher at Candeo Schools, a K-8 charter school in Peoria, Ariz., participates in an online professional development program with her colleagues. The program aims to help teachers identify where their students are in the learning process and how they might tailor their teaching to meet students’ needs.
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Formative assessment is a hyperlocal process that happens in classrooms, and often, just between a teacher and an individual student. But education leaders in Arizona are making the instructional practice a state-level priority and finding ways to support individual teachers with their daily-assessment tactics from the top.

The state education department has linked up with Margaret Heritage, an assistant director for professional development at the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing at the University of California, Los Angeles, who has developed an online professional development course dedicated to learning about formative assessment. Funded by a half-million-dollar grant from the Hewlett Foundation, the pilot course is six months long—a much longer commitment than most teacher professional-development programs. (The Hewlett Foundation also supports coverage of deeper learning in Education Week.)

About 3,500 teachers from seven states—Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, and Utah—are taking the course. It is hosted by the research group WestEd and is free to participants and states. About 40 percent of those teachers are from Arizona.

How States Can Support Formative Assessment

According to Heritage, the Grand Canyon State’s education department has made a notable effort to connect with district leaders and ensure teachers can implement what they’re learning during and after the course. “To me, it’s a model for state support for formative assessment,” she said. “The partnerships Arizona has built within the state have been really powerful.”

Since the start of this school year, teachers in more than two dozen Arizona districts have become involved in the professional-development program. District leaders each have a direct contact at the education department to help them when a problem arises.

“They’re accessible, and that’s huge,” said Pam Betten, the executive director of curriculum and instruction for the 17,000-student Sunnyside school district in Tucson. “How many people can say, ‘I’m going to text the deputy superintendent at the state department?’ ... They must value the work because they will always respond.”

The state brought district leaders together last spring for a two-day training, led by Heritage, on what formative assessment is and what the course would provide. The department gathered them again later to share their ideas on how districts can support participating teachers, for instance, with planning time, coaching, and incentives.

“Arizona really took that strategic intent to heart and mapped out a plan we think is a pretty strong example of what a thoughtful implementation plan with communication and support looks like,” said Marie Mancuso, an associate director for WestEd’s West Comprehensive Center, which provides technical assistance to the state education agency in Arizona.

While individual teachers are free to take the course, many Arizona districts have large cohorts participating. The Sunnyside district in Tucson and the Chandler district outside Phoenix each have more than 200 teachers involved.

Defining Formative Assessment

Formative assessment is a natural instructional focus for the state because it can be applied across the board, state leaders say.

“We were immediately interested in that work because we thought it had application for all teachers and wasn’t content- or grade-level specific,” said Sarah Galetti, the deputy associate superintendent for K-12 academic standards at the Arizona education department. “It’s something all teachers could engage with.”

Many districts were drawn to the course for that same reason—and also because they knew formative assessment was an area of weakness for many teachers.

Michele Hudak, the dean of academics for Candeo Schools, a small, high-performing charter in Peoria, said that after hearing about the professional-development opportunity, she put out an informal survey to the staff asking them to define and give an example of formative assessment.

“We got the results from that, and it was pretty unbelievable what people thought about formative assessment,” she said. Not one of the 20 teachers who took the survey got the definition completely correct. Half had it partially right.

“There’s this huge piece in formative assessment about... the feedback loop, and that was one piece missing in everyone’s,” she said.

As Heritage explains, the feedback loop is the process of collecting evidence about student learning, identifying gaps, providing feedback to students, and adapting instruction. It’s cyclical and continuous—as soon as a gap is closed, the teacher creates new learning goals for the student to meet.

The course is now mandatory for nearly all full-time Candeo teachers. The school releases students early every Wednesday for professional development, and the teachers are using that time to complete their online modules. In other districts, teachers are taking the course voluntarily and on their own time, either for a stipend or to satisfy professional-development requirements.

While I’m in the classroom, I’m assessing the kids on whether they get it or not. I’m thinking, what kind of question do I ask next to promote higher understanding?”

Ivette Sanchez, a 5th grade teacher at Summit View Elementary in Sunnyside, said she initially got involved because one of her teaching goals for the school year was to improve on her use of assessment. She soon realized she had the concept of formative assessment all wrong.

“I thought formative assessment was at the end of the week when I gave them questions on multiplication to see if they could solve them. I thought it was an end product after teaching a concept,” she said. “Now, I’ve learned formative assessment is what we used to call informal assessing, which is ongoing. While I’m in the classroom, I’m assessing the kids on whether they get it or not. I’m thinking, what kind of question do I ask next to promote higher understanding?”

Robert Hobbins, the associate superintendent for curriculum and instruction at Sonoran Schools Inc., a charter network with eight locations in the Tucson and Phoenix areas, said he realized his teachers had similar misconceptions about formative assessment. At a summer training, he heard teachers say that instead of using daily end-of-class tasks to gauge learning, they had been giving students Friday quizzes with a week’s worth of questions.

“I cringed when I heard that,” he said. “It’s the antithesis to what formative assessment is all about. ... [By saving them until] the end of the week after instruction was finished, they’ve lost an opportunity to go in and reteach and differentiate instruction.”

About 50 of the network’s 150 teachers are now taking the course.

Both the districts and the state are also concerned about test scores, which are dropping in most places, including Arizona, that have moved to standardized assessments aligned to the Common Core State Standards. And while state leaders say that’s not the main reason they got involved in the course, it has been a consideration.

“Hopefully, when instruction is strong, that will help improve student achievement,” said Galetti of the education department. “But this is about classroom practice and meeting the needs of all students.”

Online Learning for Teachers

The online Formative Assessment Insights course consists of five modules, which are akin to units and take about six to eight hours to complete. In the first module, teachers listen to a high-level introduction of the feedback loop and learn the questions they and their students should be asking throughout instruction: “Where am I going? Where am I now? Where to next?” They watch a video of an 8th grade math lesson and write online responses about how the teacher engages in the feedback loop. They eventually set personal goals for how to do this in their own classrooms.

Teachers will also participate in several live webinars, during which they can ask the experts questions directly.

The course is designed to let teachers experience the feedback loop as they learn about it, Heritage said.

At least one expert, however, says this sort of generic approach to learning formative assessment—in a way that applies to all teachers—is not as powerful as learning about it through the specific content areas.

Within each subject area, there are “classic misconceptions kids hold, and you can ask questions that elicit that,” said Lorrie Shepard, the dean and a distinguished professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder’s education school. For instance, in learning about how species evolve, many students believe it happens in a single lifetime—that a bird’s beak will grow so that it can reach its food source.

“It’s surfacing questions that have instructional power,” Shepard said. “I think it best improves deep learning if teachers have a chance to try out curricular materials that help them do that and have good examples of formative assessment in that context.”

But district leaders in Arizona say they have systems in place to help teachers with the practical application of what they’re learning. The course allows administrators and coaches who don’t have classrooms of their own to virtually “sit in,” so that they can help teachers as needed throughout the year.

The Kyrene school district located outside Phoenix, which has 60 teachers participating, is using this option. District leaders there are also offering a follow-up, six-hour course once the modules are complete, so that teachers can get together and reflect on their implementation, said Stephanie Leake, the assistant director of curriculum and instruction for the 18,000-student Kyrene district. Teachers are receptive to that support in part because it’s not evaluative, many say.

That’s the same reason district leaders say the relationship with the state department has been so helpful on this project. The leaders at the state education agency, including Galetti, are “about the work, not about the compliance end of it,” said Betten of Sunnyside. “It’s more about, how can we help kids learn?”

And that, some say, is a change. “I’ve been in Arizona for nine years, and I’ve never had interactions with people at the state [education] department before” this program, said Candeo’s Hudak. “The team has been so supportive.”

UCLA’s Heritage hopes the combination of the course and state and district supports will provide a model for improving formative-assessment practices nationally. “If we can pull this off,” she said, “it shows what’s needed to bring formative assessment to scale.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 11, 2015 edition of Education Week as An Arizona Initiative Sets Sights on Teachers


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