How do I know my students are learning?

By Amy Burton
April 2020
Vol 41, No. 2
Why is formative assessment — a proven powerful instructional practice — so elusive in classrooms? As a regional professional learning provider for several years, I regularly observed classroom practice to collect data on how to best support my teachers. I rarely observed the use of formative assessment, even though, when asked, teachers could define it — a quick check, during instruction, of what all students understand so far about the learning objective. When I did observe formative assessment, the most common practice was a simple “thumbs up if you understand.” But teachers didn’t check the truth or accuracy of these perceptions. A few more advanced teachers used white boards on which students could display responses, such as their answers to math problems. Yet teachers seldom

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Amy Burton

Amy Burton ( is a teacher candidate mentor at Sierra Nevada University in Reno, Nevada.

A brief history of formative assessment

Formative assessment is not novel, but neither is it well-established. Formative assessment was not part of my experience as a K-12 public school student growing up in the United States. It was not part of my curriculum when I was a teacher candidate entering the profession in 1980. Nor was it a featured subject when I earned my master’s degree in 1991.

However, as the standards movement gained momentum during the 1980s, formative assessment began to creep into my professional development experiences and classroom observation checklists. Black and Wiliam published Inside the Black Box: Raising Standards Through Classroom Assessment, their landmark study of the impact of formative assessment on learning, in 1998.

By 2005, when I applied for National Board Certification, formative assessment was foundational to that process. Nevertheless, I still struggled as a high school teacher to use assessment to inform my instruction because the data the district collected were not easily accessible to classroom teachers. I had to pioneer my own student learning data with little support.

Then, in 2013, formative assessment became part of our state teacher evaluation standards. Teachers were now required to support student metacognition by communicating learning targets, assisting students in analyzing their progress toward those targets based on ongoing formative assessment, and differentiate instruction based on the resulting student learning data. Yet I saw many teachers continuing to struggle with its use, and this drove my interest in conducting this study.

How the learning team applied the Standards for Professional Learning

Learning Communities: The reflective learning team, a cohort of teachers, conducted the action research project. Throughout, team members shared goals, data, and reflections with one another and me.  The reflective learning team, a cohort of teachers, conducted the action research project. Throughout, team members shared goals, data, and reflections with one another and me.

Leadership: Through my doctoral program, I assumed and fully committed to the role of primary leader, supported by program mentors and district permission.

Resources: Funds from a Race to the Top grant and the structures and financial and human capital of my doctoral program supported the project.

Data: Together, team members and I reviewed their lesson planning, instruction, and student learning data through a lesson study cycle. I created a plan/observe/debrief protocol to support the data collection and analysis process.

Learning Designs: We built the effort to build teachers’ knowledge about formative assessment on principles of adult development, including research on change management, teacher efficacy and leadership, and modeling the skills teachers are expected to use with students.

Implementation: We conducted the project in an ongoing, continuous manner, with the learning building on itself over time. The team planned for sustaining these practices beyond the period of the project.

Outcomes: Throughout, the focus was on improving student understanding and mastery through building teachers’ capacity to check for understanding and make necessary changes in instruction.


GBlack, P. & Wiliam, D. (1998). Inside the black box: Raising standards through classroom assessment. Phi Delta Kappa, 80(2), 139-148.

Blumberg, P. (2016). Factors that influence faculty adoption of learning-centered approaches. Innovative Higher Education, 41, 303-315.

The Learning Professional

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