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What Schools and Districts Need to Know to Support Teachers’ Use of Formative Assessment

by Caroline Wylie & Christine Lyon - August 03, 2009

The focus of this commentary is on supporting teachers’ use of formative assessment. We argue that it is not sufficient to focus on what teachers need to know, but there also needs to be consideration of the larger system in which those teachers find themselves. This paper will draw on lessons learned in the context of the Keeping Learning on Track (KLT) program regarding the support that district and school level administrators must provide in order for teacher professional development to be effective, and what they need to know in order to provide that support. Our focus has been on school-based teacher professional development that supports teachers’ use of formative assessment in their everyday teaching via sustained, school-based teacher learning communities. However, previous experience has shown that, even with a strong advocate for the program, it can be difficult to ensure a coherent message at various levels across the district. As a result, teachers fail to receive adequate support, which weakens implementation quality. We examine what we have learned about district and administrative support for the implementation of formative assessment and outline a body of knowledge that school and district administrators need in order to support formative assessment.

Popham (2009) has been a strong proponent for increasing the use of classroom formative assessment and is concerned that the education community is not doing enough in terms of getting the word out (p. 6) about its power to improve student learning. The goal of this commentary is to suggest how we can get more teachers to implement formative assessment in their classrooms. We approach the issue in two ways: first by articulating what teachers need to know about formative assessment and how they acquire that knowledge, and second, what players in the wider school system need to know in order to support and reinforce its implementation.

This commentary will draw on lessons learned with colleagues at Educational Testing Service (ETS) in the context of research and development efforts around the Keeping Learning on Track® (KLT) program. Our work has focused on creating a school-based teacher professional development program that supports teachers use of formative assessment in their everyday teaching via sustained, school-based teacher learning communities. Lessons learned, however, extend beyond the particulars of our approach to other sustained professional development efforts.

Formative Assessment

Formative assessment was defined by Black, Harrison, Lee, Marshall, and Wiliam (2003) as what occurs when information about learning is evoked and then used to modify the teaching and learning activities in which teachers and students are engaged [emphasis in the original] (p. 122). The Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO, 2008) defined it as a process used by teachers and students during instruction that provides feedback to adjust ongoing teaching and learning to improve students achievement of intended instructional outcomes (p. 3). In our work with colleagues in the Learning and Teaching Research Center, we define the overarching principle as Students and teachers using evidence of learning to adapt teaching and learning to meet immediate learning needs minute-to-minute and day-by-day (ETS, 2007, p. 25).

There is significant agreement across these definitions of formative assessment, in part because each one was developed from the same research basis. The extensive literature review conducted by Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam (Black & Wiliam, 1998) along with other work such as that of Brookhart (2005) and Nyquist (2003) demonstrate a strong and positive connection between teachers use of formative assessment in everyday teaching and improved student learning. While student learning has been defined in a variety of ways across studies, Wiliam, Lee, and Harrison looked at the relationship between the implementation of formative assessment and student achievement on externally mandated standardized assessment and found a mean effect size of .32 in favor of the intervention. Based on the Black and Wiliam research, the ETS definition of formative assessment is broken down into five key strategies (ETS, 2007):


Clarifying and sharing learning intentions and criteria for success


Engineering effective classroom discussions, questions, and learning tasks that elicit evidence of learning


Providing feedback that moves learning forward


Activating students as owners of their own learning


Activating students as instructional resources for one another

The first three strategies focus primarily (although not exclusively) on the teacher role: setting direction for learning through learning intentions and criteria for success; engineering questions, discussions, and tasks so that learning towards the particular goals can be evidenced; and providing feedback to help students reach those goals. The final two strategies focus on students roles both in terms of reflecting on their own learning and supporting the learning of their peers, although teachers have a critical role in activating students ability to do so, through careful structure, guidance, and modeling.

Dividing formative assessment into separate strategies helps practitioners identify more clearly what formative assessment is, and is not. To support teachers development and use of formative assessment, we initially present these strategies along with opportunities for teachers to explore ideas for putting each into practice. Practitioners choose one or two formative assessment techniques, each tied to a specific strategy, to begin implementing; beginning small provides an accessible starting point. However, supporting the sustained incorporation of formative assessment into daily instruction must go beyond the initial presentation of the strategies and a few specific techniques. Rather, teachers require ongoing support to learn about new formative assessment practices, reflect upon their implementation, and further revise their practice. Thus, ongoing professional development provides new learning as well as a structure that holds teachers accountable for repeating the cycle of practicing and refining new approaches while getting feedback and support from their peers. The next section describes some of what we know about effective professional development and how we have employed that knowledge.

Effective Professional Development

The recent National Staff Development Councils report on Professional Learning (Darling-Hammond, Wei, Andree, Richardson, & Orphanos, 2009) reviewed research on professional development. While there are few well-designed studies, and causal relationships are not fully established, some core principles emerge. Professional development should: be intensive, ongoing, and connected to practice (p. 9); focus on student learning and address the teaching of specific curriculum content (p. 10); align with school improvement priorities and goals (p. 10); and build strong working relationships among teachers (p. 11).

Our research and development efforts have focused on professional development that adheres to these four principles. In order for professional development to be intensive, ongoing, and connected to practice, we have focused on the use of teacher learning communities which are supported by a curriculum of materials that sustain meetings for two years or more, such that a teacher who was fully engaged in the process would have at least 24 hours of professional development per year (considerably above the threshold where no impact is likely) (Darling-Hammond et al., 2009). Time is devoted to learning new aspects of formative assessment, planning for implementation, and supportive reflection. This ongoing cycle of learning, implementation, reflection, and revision provides the support and accountability needed for teachers to continuously refine their classroom practice.

Regarding the second principle (Darling-Hammond et al., 2009, p. 10), we maintain a direct focus on student learning by continually providing teachers with opportunities to discuss specific aspects of their developing formative assessment practice, reflect on how they collected evidence of student learning and what they did as a result. In addition, there is an impact on how teachers address the teaching of specific curriculum content as they consider aspects of practice such as learning intentions for particular lessons. As Wiliam (2004) notes, in order for assessment to function formatively, it needs to identify where learners are in their learning, where they are going, and how to get there (p. 5). Thus teachers discussion around the daily use of formative assessment will necessarily have to focus on student learning.

The third principle of alignment with school improvement priorities and goals (Darling-Hammond et al., 2009, p. 10) is largely out of the hands of the developers of the professional development, but rather within the control of the school, district, or state initiating the professional development. Finally, the fourth principle focuses on building strong working relationships among teachers (Darling-Hammond et al., 2009, p. 11). The use of small learning communities of five to eight teachers, along with a structure for those meetings, including feedback and sounding-board opportunities for participants, builds and strengthens working relationships as we have seen across multiple teaching learning communities (Lyon & Leahy, 2009; Lyon & Wylie, 2009).

We have outlined our approach to introducing and sustaining learning about formative assessment. However, as stated in the introduction, it is not sufficient to focus on what teachers need to know, but rather on the larger school system in which those teachers are found. The following sections will examine what we have learned about necessary district and administrative support for the implementation of formative assessment in the context of implementing the KLT program. We will conclude by outlining a body of knowledge that school and district administrators need to understand in order to support formative assessment in their schools.

Implementation in the Wider School System

Our approach has been to develop strong foundational knowledge of formative assessment and to provide opportunities to deepen initial learning by engaging teachers in a learn-practice-reflect-refine cycle through structures that are consistent with research on effective professional development. However, without sufficient planning, communication, and on-going support within the larger system, the implementation may suffer. Analysis of previous efforts has provided some insight into successful and not so successful implementations (Wylie, 2008). One early implementation described by Wylie, Thompson, Lyon, and Snodgrass (2008) illustrated the gap that can develop between initial plans and on-the-ground realities as the district struggled to provide the range of supports outlined in the initial memorandum of understanding.

More recently, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, we have been working with four high-needs districts, focusing on high school mathematics and science teachers. Each of the districts approached the task of supporting and scheduling the teacher learning community (TLC) meetings in different ways. One district is using early release days once a month for the TLCs to meet. In other cases teachers meet before or after school, or during common preparation periods. The frequency of meetings varies across the groups, from monthly to weekly, although regardless of meeting frequency the goal is to have at least two hours of meeting time per month.  

Although the program itself has not substantively changed, it is helpful to contrast our approaches from three years ago with a more recent, and successful, approach. Previously, our contact had primarily been the district advocate, who in turn communicated with the school staff. More recently, we communicated directly with district and key school personnel as part of the recruitment efforts. Three years ago as part of the initial agreement process, a detailed memo of understanding was created outlining the district and ETS responsibilities. This time, we required interested districts to complete an application form with questions about the school-specific implementation plans. Previously, all funding had come from the central district budget, and this time we required, as part of the upfront planning, each school to identify how they would support their teachers in terms of release time, stipends, etc. Three years ago we had been unsuccessful in providing training specifically for the principals due to district communication issues. This time we ensured that we had direct contact with the principals of each participating school. Three years ago, ETS staff engaged in data collection, analysis, and evaluation, with support of district staff, but as a partnership. More recently we have been providing support for principals to engage their teachers in an evaluation of the first years implementation, comparing the original plans for the year with what actually happened. The goal is that collectively school groups will identify successes and barriers to the TLC meetings and find unique school-based solutions to strengthen the implementation during the second year. Cumulatively, these changes have served to develop greater buy-in and a higher level of support for participating teachers in the schools.

Even with changes to recruitment and communications, TLC meetings still are interrupted or disrupted. TLC leaders maintain monthly records of their meetings. Of the reports provided, 18% of the time, the TLC leaders reported that the TLC did not meet that month. While vacations, snow days, or other unforeseen occurrences will always cause disruptions, the majority of the reported issues involved scheduling and competing time demands, which tend to increase as the year progresses.


Implementing formative assessment can place new demands on teachers, for example, causing them to think deeply about the kinds of questions they ask, find ways to support students to provide feedback to peers, identify the key learning to make it apparent to students, assess progress towards that learning at the end of a lesson, and to adapt future instruction when learning is not yet on target. This kind of learning requires ongoing professional development support and teacher learning communities are one way to meet the requirements of quality professional development. However, ongoing professional development also puts new demands on the school system. It is not enough to have a program that meets the requirements of what research suggests is effective. Districts require additional information so that they can better understand what can challenge professional development and how to best prevent or minimize those issues. Based on our experiences, we provide two lists of knowledge statements, first dealing with what principals and district administrations need to know about formative assessment, and second, what they need to understand in order to support school-based ongoing professional development. First, critical knowledge about formative assessment:


Formative assessment can impact student learning in powerful ways.


It is not about teachers administering more frequent tests.


Teachers need sustained opportunities to develop, practice, reflect upon and refine formative assessment practices.


The implementation of formative assessment may result in changes to both the explicit classroom rules and implicit classroom expectations.


Formative assessment might interrupt other classroom/school policies.


Formative assessment has a critical student component and impacts more than just what the teacher does.

Second, principals need critical knowledge about supporting teachers in school-based ongoing professional development. The knowledge in the following list is not necessarily specific to professional development focused on formative assessment, but applies to any form of ongoing, school-based professional development.


Professional development programs with contact ranging between 5 to 14 hours per year had no statistically significant impact on student learning (Darling-Hammond et al., 2009).


Protecting non-instructional and professional development time is part of the job of an instructional leader.


Ongoing school-based professional development requires careful scheduling, planning, and monitoring.


Changing practice is difficult. School leaders should provide positive feedback to individuals and groups of teachers to recognize their hard work and accomplishments.


Multiple initiatives can pull teachers in multiple directions. School leaders need to recognize these demands and communicate priorities.  


Engaging teachers in the evaluation process - to determine how initial implementation plans play out, what is and is not successful, and what are the barriers, in order to adjust plans and schedules - may support the long-term success of the initiative.


Engaging teachers in formative assessment can be a powerful way to reenergize experienced teachers.

The goal of this commentary is to suggest a body of knowledge that is important for district and school administrators to possess in order to support professional development centered on formative assessment. We propose that the two lists above provide an important starting point if schools and districts are serious about embedding professional development focused on formative assessment into the daily lives of teachers. Teachers may need to make changes to their practice, and schools may need to find new ways of operating in order to support teachers learning.


Any opinions expressed [in the publication] are those of the author(s) and not necessarily of the Educational Testing Service.


Black, P. J., & Wiliam, D. (1998). Assessment and classroom learning. Assessment in Education: Principles Policy and Practice, 5(1), 7-73.

Black, P., Harrison, C, Lee, C., Marshall, B., & Wiliam, D. (2003). Assessment for learning: Putting it into practice. Berkshire, England: Open University Press.

Brookhart, S. M. (2005). Research on formative classroom assessment. Montreal, Canada: Paper Presented in the Symposium: Formative Classroom Assessment: Research, Theory, and Practice, at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Montreal, Canada.

CCSSO (2008). Formative assessment: Examples of practice. A work product initiated and led by Caroline Wylie, ETS, for the Formative Assessment for Students and Teachers (FAST) Collaborative. Council of Chief State School Officers: Washington, DC. 2008.

Darling-Hammond, L., Wei, R. C., Andree, A., Richardson, N., & Orphanos, S. (2009). Professional learning in the learning profession: A status report on teacher development in the United States and abroad. Published by the National Staff Development Council and The School Redesign Network at Stanford University.

Educational Testing Service (2007). Keeping learning on track: Introductory workshop trainer kit. Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service.

Lyon, C.J, & Wylie, E.C. (2009). Developing assessment for learning through teacher learning communities. (ETS Research Memorandum No. RM-09-01). Princeton, NJ: ETS.

Lyon, C.J, & Wylie, E.C. (2009). How structure and focus support teacher learning. (ETS Research Memorandum No. RM-09-02). Princeton, NJ: ETS.

Nyquist, J.B. (2003). The benefits of reconstructing feedback as a larger system of formative assessment: A meta-analysis. Unpublished Vanderbilt University Master of Science thesis.

Popham, W. J. (2009). Unlearned lessons: Six stumbling blocks to our schools success. Harvard Education Letter, March/April, pp. 6-8.

Wiliam, D. (2004, June). Keeping learning on track: Integrating assessment with instruction. Presented at the 30th International Association for Educational Assessment Conference held in June 2004, Philadelphia, PA.

Wylie, E.C., Thompson, M., Lyon, C. & Snodgrass, D. (2008). Keeping learning on track in an urban districts low performing schools. In E. C. Wylie (Ed.), Tight but loose: Scaling up teacher professional development in diverse contexts (RR-08-29, pp. 1-44). Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service.

Wylie, E. C. (Ed.). (2008). Tight but loose: Scaling up teacher professional development in diverse contexts. (ETS Research Rep. No. RR-08-29). Princeton, NJ: ETS.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: August 03, 2009
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15734, Date Accessed: 10/26/2021 12:57:06 AM

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About the Author
  • Caroline Wylie
    Educational Testing Service
    E-mail Author
    CAROLINE WYLIE is a Research Scientist at the Educational Testing Service.
  • Christine Lyon
    Educational Testing Service

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