How responsive planning can strengthen your formative assessment practice

In my work with educators over the years, I have found the majority associate formative assessment with the phrase “assessment for learning” and describe it as “in-the-moment adjustments to teaching.” While both of these are true, my work with educators focuses on helping them cultivate a more robust definition and application of formative assessment.

As an organization, we subscribe to the CCSSO revised definition of formative assessment and, with permission, have adapted it for use in our organization:

Formative assessment is a planned, ongoing process used by all students and teachers during learning and teaching to elicit and use evidence of student learning to improve student understanding of intended disciplinary learning outcomes and support students to become self-directed learners.

Notice the phrases in bold. Our definition situates both students and teachers at the heart of the formative practice, ensuring it is a process done with students rather than to or for them. We seek to position formative assessment not as a thing, but as a process, an intentional and planned iterative cycle, used by both students and teachers to accomplish two specific student outcomes: improve understanding of intended learning and support agency.

Formative assessment that goes beyond “in-the-moment adjustments” helps teachers focus on empowering students; collaboration between teachers and learners; and learning as a journey, rather than a destination. Responsive planning with the end in mind—a larger process that relies on formative assessment to be effective—is a way to put your formative assessment practice in a larger context, one that can greatly strengthen your teaching and boost your students’ learning.

Responsive planning with the end in mind: What it is and how to do it

In Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, there is a powerful scene where Alice arrives at a fork in the road. Spotting the Cheshire cat sitting high above her in a tree, she asks him which way she should go. He responds with a question of his own: “Where do you want to go?” When she says that she doesn’t know, the cat, in his sly way, says it doesn’t matter.

Isn’t this true in our instruction as well? If we don’t know where we want to go in our teaching—and where we want our students to go through their learning—any old lesson plan will get us there. Either road in that fork will do.

Responsive planning with the end in mind is an approach that challenges us to undertake our practice with more intention. It’s designed to respond to students’ unique needs before and during a lesson, as outlined in the purple and blue sections of the visual below. And it relies heavily on formative assessment to create a complete picture.

Intended to ensure strong alignment of standards, instruction, and assessment, responsive planning with the end in mind allows you to create a plan that outlines assessments, instructional activities, and tasks responsive to students’ learning needs and preferences. The plan also indicates when in the lesson students will be assessed, and how teachers and students can adjust based on the results. Let’s walk through the four steps.

1. Before instruction: Identify the desired learning outcome

To determine your desired learning outcome—that place you want to go, as the Cheshire cat would say—you’ll need to look to your grade-level standards. Unwrap the content to establish student-friendly learning targets and success criteria that explicitly support students in understanding the aims of your instruction and the criteria to measure their learning progress. Here’s how it could look in ELA, content area reading, and math.

  • ELA: Try a text-based approach. It may be a departure from what you’re used to, but this method puts text—rather than skills and strategies—front and center.

First, dig into the text to identify the key understandings you want students to have after reading and to determine what makes the text complex, such as aspects of meaning, knowledge, structure, or language. Second, create a focusing question and writing task that will allow students to express that they grasped the key understandings. Third, with the qualitative complexity in mind, identify the standards that will support students in navigating the most challenging aspects of the text, and use those standards to create scaffolded, text-dependent questions that will support students in making meaning of the text and drive toward the focusing question and writing task.

  • Content area reading: Content area reading refers to reading to learn, rather than learning to read. It encompasses all the skills and abilities required for students to access, comprehend, and apply informational text used to impart content understanding and learning. If you’re a content area teacher, you, too, can support students in accessing text so that they can glean the content you are trying to teach.

Just like ELA teachers, consider a text-based approach when planning for instruction involving complex informational texts. The process is the same, except the focusing questions and tasks should drive toward content understanding in grade-level standards.

  • Math: Strong mathematical instruction centers primarily on where the standards focus; considers coherence across grades and links to major topics within the grades; and attends with equal intensity to the aspects of rigor in the standards, including conceptual understanding; procedural skill and fluency; and application.

2. Before instruction: Determine evidence of learning

In the second step of responsive planning with the end in mind, consider how you and your students will know they have met the desired learning outcome identified in step one by establishing the evidence you will accept and how you will collect it. This involves identifying or designing the formative and summative assessments you will use when you’re actually teaching the lesson. These are the assessments that will allow you to continually adjust your teaching.

3. Before instruction: Plan instruction at grade-level standards

Once you know your learning outcomes and how to measure learning progress and mastery, you can plan the instructional activities that will support and guide students to those outcomes. Begin planning focused on the grade-level standards and rigor. Then, in order to promote access to equitable instruction, consult your multiple data sources—from curricular assessments to scores from an interim assessment, like MAP® Growth™—to determine where students may need additional support or challenge to access the instruction in a way that promotes productive struggle, that just-right level of challenge in a student’s zone of proximal development (ZPD). This is also where you can consider students’ social-emotional learning needs.

4. During instruction: Teach the lesson; respond and adjust in real time

This fourth step is all about instruction. Put your plan to work and use your formative practice to monitor and adjust the plan in real time based on how students progress. Be sure to make notes about what works so you can use your reflections to anticipate and proactively plan for potential student needs in the future.

In closing

What I find most exciting about responsive planning with the end in mind is that we don’t have to wait until we are in the teaching and learning cycle to begin our formative practice. Analyzing existing data sources to inform responsive adjustments to a plan before teaching will save you precious instructional time, since you will be proactively anticipating and planning for student needs. And it will make your formative assessment methods much more effective.

Talking through these ideas with your colleagues could be a great next step. Here are some questions that can help you start a dialogue.

Questions for teachers

  • What are your thoughts on the CCSSO definition of formative assessment? What resonates with your thinking? What is new or stretches your thinking?
  • How do you plan formative assessment?
  • After reading the blog post, what was confirmed in your planning of formative assessment? What would you add or modify to your practice?
  • Discuss each step as outlined in the blog post, taking note of what each step would look like in your classroom.
  • What support is needed to continue to plan for formative assessment in your classroom?

Questions for leaders

  • What is the expectation for evidence of formative assessment planning by teachers?
  • What are your district’s or school’s understandings and use of formative assessment?
  • What supports can be given to teachers to aid in their planning of formative assessments in their classrooms?

This is the second in a series on formative assessment. Read the first post.And read the entire series in our e-book.

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