Hi there. I hope you’re doing well. I don’t know if the end of the school year has provided you any respite or not–I know things are still very busy. I hope you do get to breathe a bt. Here in Connecticut it’s been ridiculously hot and muggy, and I am grateful that we have air conditioning. This Coaching Letter is about formative assessment and acceleration not remediation.

I’ve presented on planning teaching and learning for the Re-opening School Workshop twice now (and not done yet—we are repeating our sessions with district teams from Rhode Island), and have had email or Zoom exchanges with a lot of people since. Two things stand out to me: 1. there were lots of questions about where to get more information about formative assessment, and 2. the idea of acceleration rather than remediation was an arresting idea for a lot of people.

As a result of the interest in formative assessment, I started to put together this list of resources on formative assessment. I make no claim that it’s complete—I put in as much time as I had to give to it last week, but now I am on the hook for other things, so I’ll get back to it when I can. It is heavily influenced by the work of Dylan Wiliam, who has long been one of my intellectual heroes. He is one of the authors of Inside the Black Box, which first put the idea of formative assessment on the map, so to speak. I recommend books and videos by him all the time. Please take a look at the Google Doc—let me know if you have feedback.

Professor Wiliam was also featured in a two-part documentary on British television, quite a while ago. It’s a great bit of television, with a remarkable amount of drama, interesting characters, and a surprising plot twist. I love it not just because it illuminates a lot of the techniques of formative assessment, but because it provides a great deal of insight into why changing one’s practice is not as easy as we like to think it isnot like changing one’s socks. The teachers in the film really struggle to make some of the techniques work. Each part is an hour long, but it’s a worthwhile investment, trust me:  Episode 1,  Episode 2.

I would add that one of the biggest difficulties to doing a better job of formative assessment is to change the way that educators without much exposure to the concepts of formative assessment think about it—they tend to think in terms of assessments (noun), i.e. tests, quizzes, exits slips. We should be thinking about assessing (verb). Or when they do think in instructional terms, they tend to minimize it as “checking for understanding” or “progress monitoring” or, a particular pet peeve of mine, exit slips. They underestimate the challenge of changing teacher practice, because incorporating formative assessment into teaching requires a big picture sense of what it means and why it’s important, clarity of learning intentions, planning a very sophisticated use of questioning and other techniques for eliciting evidence of student understanding, a worthwhile task, and anticipation of where students could be off track in order to plan to bring them back on track, just for starters. It is very difficult to do well.

Regarding acceleration, I added the best resources I could find to this existing list of resources for thinking about hybrid teaching and learning—under the section on acceleration. One of the Center’s next big projects is to design a series of workshops on acceleration, because that work is crucial but daunting, and we think districts could use some help thinking through it. So, I don’t have all the details yet but hold these dates: August 3, 5, 7, 9-10:30 am. We still have a lot of work to do on that, but I think we’re getting clearer on what we shouldn’t be doing.

For example: differentiation. It seems obvious that differentiating for student needs is the right thing to do, but that is not necessarily the case.  It’s increasingly clear that differentiation that means “starting where students are” tends to put students who are already behind on a damaging trajectory. As the TNTP Learning Acceleration Guide puts it:

The typical approach to remediation—providing work better suited for earlier grades—won’t come close to catching students up and will likely compound the problem. In our recent study, The Opportunity Myth, we found this approach of “meeting students where they are,” though well intentioned, practically guarantees they’ll lose more academic ground and reinforces misguided beliefs that some students can’t do grade-level work. The students stuck in this vicious cycle are disproportionately the most vulnerable: students of color, from low-income families, with special needs, or learning English.

Differentiation is, therefore, very difficult to do well. I would go so far as to say that I’ve almost never seen it done well—but I have seen lots of examples of very poor practice, such as sitting the students who don’t know their multiplication facts on the carpet at the front of the room to play a game, while students who do know those facts are at a table working on sophisticated word problems. I don’t see how that’s supposed to help. Plus we don’t have research that shows that differentiation is a successful practice as the best of times, partly because there’s no consensus about what differentiation actually means for classroom practice.

Students who have lost ground during the shutdown will lose out if schools take a remedial approach to instruction. Just to be clear, there are several reasons for this. In addition to the reasons stated in the quotation from TNTP above, I believe there is also a strong mental model around remediation centered on the belief that students who are behind (for whatever reason, including poor instruction and high mobility) are also less capable. The curriculum, therefore, slows down even more for these students, the language and concepts they are exposed to are less sophisticated, the demands on them in terms of product, especially writing, are lower—the instruction, in other words, is complicit in holding them farther back. We need a better plan.

Usually my summers are pretty quiet, work-wise. But not this year. Looks like I’ll be working pretty much straight through, as I think my colleagues will be also. So let us know if you need anything. When I did the slides for the Re-Opening Schools Workshop, I borrowed heavily from Charlie Mackesy, author of The Boy, the mole, the fox and the horse. I follow him on Instagram, and I wish he’d published this drawing in time for me to include in the presentation: “The truth is,” said the horse “everyone is winging it”. Best, Isobel

Isobel Stevenson, PhD PCC
Connecticut Center for School Change
Center Staff
Coaching Letter
Tools and Resources

Stevenson logo