Succeeding With Differentiation

iStock-875574964_masterThis post was originally published on

Student voice is a hot topic in education, which makes me exceedingly happy—I’ve always thought that students were an educational stakeholder group that needed to be heard.

However, as a former teacher beginning my second year as a full-time consultant working with K–12 educators on differentiating instruction, I’ve come to realize that there’s another group of stakeholders whose voices are as important as students’, if not more so: teachers.


For several decades now, differentiation has been on many school districts’ lists of prioritized initiatives. The workshops I facilitate are typically not teachers’ first professional learning on differentiation. Yet differentiation is still an initiative in many districts, not a long-settled policy. Why?

The answer to this question is multifaceted. The traditional A-F grading system doesn’t lend itself easily to differentiation, and tracking students undermines it. However, there’s another significant roadblock to enacting successful, sustainable differentiation initiatives: the pervasive tendency of professional learning facilitators to dismiss teacher voice.

Such facilitators (whether that’s me, an administrator, an instructional coach, or a fellow teacher) are often guilty of inadvertently disregarding participants’ sentiments of struggle. We view these struggles as resistance instead of listening to what teachers say and differentiating our instruction for teachers’ needs accordingly.

In my experience, most examples of teacher resistance are about valid claims, not unfounded complaints. And sometimes the struggles teachers face are with specific practices that are cornerstones of differentiation, which presents a conundrum.

In an effort to help break the cycle of endless differentiation PD and find solutions for common differentiation obstacles, I’ve worked with many teachers to create work-arounds that accomplish the intended goal of the problematic practice and also respect teachers’ professionalism, as illustrated here with two examples.


Common teacher sentiment: “Pre-assessments take too long to administer, and they frequently just show that  the majority of the class has not mastered the material.”

The plain truth: Pre-assessments can take a lot of instructional time and sometimes provide teachers with little usable data.

Intended goal of pre-assessment: Teachers can use evidence from pre-assessments to plan instruction based on student need. The pre-assessment data will show teachers (among other things) which students have already mastered the material, so teachers can provide them with enrichment, which could take the form of anchor projects co-designed by the teacher and student, or challenges that allow for students to go deeper into the learning intentions by asking more complex questions.

Solution: Differentiate the pre-assessment. Instead of giving all students a time-intensive, whole unit pre-assessment, begin by giving all students a quick formative assessment on the first topic covered in the unit of study. Data from this formative assessment immediately tell teachers which students may have already mastered the content for the entire unit.

Then, give the full unit pre-assessment only to the small group of students who have shown that they have some mastery of the unit content. The results from this pre-assessment will tell teachers if they need to offer students enrichment on all or just some parts of the unit.

For each subsequent topic in the unit, offer quick formative assessments to the students who did not show mastery on the formative assessment covering the first topic. Offer topic enrichment on these topics to students as the need appears.


Common teacher sentiment: “I struggle with group work and prefer direct instruction.”

The plain truth: About 10 years ago, direct instruction began to get a really bad rap. Teachers were told they needed to be “the guide on the side, not the sage on the stage.” However, research indicates that direct instruction is highly effective for student learning.

Intended goal of group work: Students work collaboratively to process and deepen their understanding of content.

Solution: Use a hybrid of direct instruction and cooperative learning. Let’s begin by clarifying a couple of points.

First, direct instruction and lecture are not synonymous. John Hattie has notedthat direct instruction done correctly has a greater impact on student learning than group work done incorrectly. Direct instruction is effective when the teacher instructs in short segments, with frequent checks for understanding and opportunities for students to process, practice, and receive feedback.

Second, group work and cooperative learning are not synonymous. Group work is an ambiguous term that encompasses everything from students working on a project together to students sitting in a group but working individually. Cooperative learning is structured so that all group members have equal opportunities to engage in appropriately rigorous learning.

With these clarifications in mind, to create a hybrid of direct instruction and cooperative learning in your classroom, follow these steps:

  1. Use formative assessment evidence to determine which students have mastered the material you will cover during direct instruction.
  2. Offer any qualifying students enrichment.
  3. Continue direct instruction as planned with the remainder of your students.
  4. Build in breaks in instruction (every 7–12 minutes depending on the age of your students) to check for understanding and give students an opportunity to practice and process.
  5. Incorporate cooperative learning structures like Think-Pair-Share or gallery walks during the breaks in direct instruction.


All teachers want their students to succeed, and all teachers try to make this happen. That is all differentiation is. We complicate differentiation by not allowing ourselves to be provisional with how we apply the foundational pieces of differentiated instruction.

Instead, if we address these four questions in our instructional planning, differentiation will always be the result: What do my students need? How do I know? What will I do to meet their needs? How do I know if what I’m doing is working?

Questions about differentiation? Connect with Lisa here or on Twitter.  You can also check out Student-Driven Differentiation: 8 Steps To Harmonize Learning and previous blog posts on differentiation.

Retakes Do Not Promote Laziness. They Exemplify Compassion

Retake image.png

This article was originally published in Education Week Teacher.

Editor’s note: For a counterpoint to this piece, see Baptiste Delvallé’s opinion essay, “Why I Give Students Only One Chance on Tests.”

Even though it was 23 years ago, I vividly remember the countdown calendar I created for my 16th birthday. I marked April 5, 1993 with a giant set of keys and a convertible. I was going to get my driver’s license, and it was going to be the best day of my life.

During the year leading up to that fateful birthday, I diligently practiced and prepared for the written and performance components of the exam. I applied feedback from my driver’s education teacher and my parents. I practiced driving the course I would later navigate. All the evidence from these formative assessments pointed to my mastery of the open road.

However, when I went to take the actual driver’s test, I successfully completed the course but made a silly, yet critical, error on the written assessment. I pleaded with my evaluator to make an exception and pass me anyway. It was only one little mistake.

I felt completely defeated. All of that practice, and still, I had failed. But then my evaluator told me that we all have bad days. “Go sit in the waiting area and think about the reasons why you made the error you did, and how you can avoid errors like that in the future,” he said. “I’ll come find you in one hour.”

An hour later, he let me retake the test, and the license was mine.

Responding to the Unexpected

There is rarely, if ever, a reason to deny a student an opportunity to retake an assessment. In fact, to do so actually negates the importance of the concepts we aim to teach. Additionally, the purpose of retakes is not to give students a reason to procrastinate in their studies, but to give students the benefit of the doubt and offer them multiple chances to show mastery.

In my work with teachers in school systems across the country on differentiation and standards-based grading, I have found that test retakes are a hot button for many educators. I often hear teachers say things like, “Students don’t study because they know they can just retake the test.”

In response to this perceived lack of effort by students, some teachers refuse to let students retake a test or require them to perform a variety of tasks (worksheets, online lessons, test corrections) or come in during recess to qualify for a retake.

We should never just assume that students are lazy. Retakes aren’t about students being unprepared, but about letting them respond to the unexpected hurdle. I help educators define how to use retakes in helpful ways: for those occasions when there are discrepancies between formative and summative assessment results.

When teachers give smaller assessments for learning—or formative assessments—correctly and with fidelity, a student who unexpectedly bombs a larger evaluation of student learning at the end of a unit—or a summative assessment—should be a rarity. By using evidence from students’ formative assessments, teachers should have a solid grasp on whether or not individual students are ready for the end assessment.

If formative data shows individual students are ready to take the final test, but they still perform poorly, this discrepancy calls for talking with students to determine what happened, offering reteaching if necessary, and letting them retake the test.

What’s more, if a large number of students did not show mastery of the learning, that is indicative of one of three things: 1) The formative assessments a teacher gave did not correctly identify where students were in their learning; 2) All students took the summative on the same day regardless of readiness; or 3) Many students, for a variety of reasons, simply had an off day.

Our ultimate goal as educators is to ensure students learn, which is why we should offer students a second chance to show us their skills.

Being an Educator, Not a Judge

Some educators also argue that if students showed mastery on earlier assessments and not on the final, then they didn’t master the material at all. This statement begs us to think more about what “mastery” truly means. Is the process fixed or is it fluid?

I would argue that mastery is indeed fluid. Case in point is Gabrielle Daleman, an Olympic figure skater who competed this year for the Canadian women’s team. Gabrielle proved she had the skills required to qualify for the Olympics many times. But in February, after winning a gold medal in the team figure-skating event, Daleman fell multiple times on the ice and dropped to 15th place in the overall competition. But can anyone really argue that because Daleman failed her performance she had never shown mastery in the first place? I don’t think so.

There are no retakes in the Olympics. Many will still argue that there aren’t retakes in real life. But lucky for our students, we have the opportunity and, moreover, the obligation to give our students second (and third) chances. There will always be a few students who work the system. But I’d argue that it’s not the student who is flawed—it’s the system itself.

In addition to the daily assessments we give them now, students will take many tests over the course of their lives, such as a driver’s exam, the SAT, the LSAT, and the MCAT, to name a few. All of these examples allow retakes. The way school prepares students for real life is by ensuring they learn the content and skills necessary to live a full, productive life. Part of real life is determining next steps when life doesn’t go as planned.

Why not give students the same courtesy and opportunities to learn and grow now?

How To Coach For Differentiation


A teacher in a differentiated classroom does not classify herself as someone who ‘already differentiates instruction.’ Rather that teacher is fully aware that every hour of teaching, every day in the classroom can reveal one more way to make the classroom a better match for its learners. – Carol Ann Tomlinson

Raise your hand if differentiation is on your school district’s list of initiatives? If your district is like many across the country, differentiation is something that is talked about frequently, and perhaps a struggle to implement.

I recently completed my second year as an instructional coach who specializes in differentiation, and in this time I’ve started to recognize trends as to why differentiation (which clearly helps students learn) is not fully embraced by educators (who strive to ensure students learn).

Differentiation Is Not the Goal

In short, there is a lot of confusion about what differentiation is, how you do it, and what it looks like.

Because I have the word differentiation in my title, teachers would often seek me out with a predetermined goal for our coaching cycle: “I want to differentiate instruction.”

Initially, I thought the fact that teachers came to me with a goal would make my job easier. But that couldn’t have been further from the truth. In fact, when teachers came to me with this specific goal, our cycles were not as successful as cycles with other identified goals.

It took several stalled coaching cycles for me to recognize why this was happening. Once, I realized the reason, however, my coaching practice improved. The reason is: differentiation in it of itself is not the goal; rather differentiation is the result of the achievement of a number of smaller goals.

What do you mean?

Here’s an analogy. Many people set a goal to “lose weight.” As they make their action plan, they set a series of smaller, more manageable, and trackable goals: eat smaller meals more frequently, limit sugar intake, increase exercise, etc. Weight loss is a natural by-product of any of these smaller goals steps, assuming they are done with fidelity.

The Big Four

In Instructional Coaching, author Jim Knight identifies “The Big Four”  areas in which teachers and coaches can partner to set goals. The big four are: classroom management, content, instruction, and formative assessment.

To differentiate effectively, and to effectively coach around differentiation, the natural starting point is to examine at each of these categories need to be considered for individual teachers.

Classroom Management: The learning environment is instrumental for effective differentiation. Teachers and students must have a mutual understanding of expectations and the climate must be evident of respect and rapport. If these elements are not evident, it is in the best interest of the coach, teacher, and students to start here if the teacher is willing.

Sometimes teachers are hesitant to form a classroom management goal as they feel pressured to implement initiatives, like differentiation, and feel they are wasting time and administrators won’t “see” differentiation in their classroom.

I strongly encourage coaches and teachers to not give into that perceived pressure and to engage in a classroom management cycle if needed. It is the coach’s responsibility to also work with administrators so they understand the multiple small steps/coaching cycles that may take place before differentiation is readily evident and effective.

Classroom Management

Example Classroom Managment Coaching Cycle Goal: I want to decrease the number of disruptions. ➢    Data Collected: Number of disruptions in a 40 minute period ➢    Strategy used: Break up whole group instruction with structured partner work (specifically a Kagan Strategy called Rally Coach) ➢    How did differentiation ensue?: Rally Coach allowed for students at different placed in their learning to partner and challenge each partner appropriately


As more and more school districts switch to standards-based grading which requires educators to study the language of the standards (CCSS, NGSS, C3) they are assessing, a common conclusion made is often times, there is quite a bit of leeway as far as specific content.

While this can, at times, still be a hard pill for some content experts to swallow (why isn’t studying the Civil War mandatory?) this change allows for teachers to differentiate for student’s interests within a unit of study which ultimately benefits their mastery of the skill being assessed.

Example Content Coaching Cycle Goal I want students to see the relevancy of the content in a unit. ➢    Data Collected: Student engagement data ➢    Strategy used: Essential question(s) ➢    How did differentiation ensue?: Students self-identified areas of relevance to the content and then wrote pieces on different topics all related to the subject area, rather than in previous years where all students wrote on the same topic.


Oftentimes, instruction is an area that will require multiple goals and the use of more than one strategy for each goal (read more on why here). This is also an area that lends itself nicely to coaches and teachers partnering as co-teachers for part of the learning phase of the coaching cycle.

Example Instruction Coaching Cycle Goal I want to e ngage more students in class discussions. ➢    Data Collected: Types, kind, level of questions asked and number of students volunteering to answer ➢    Strategy used: Questioning (using Bloom’s Taxonomy and Webb’s Depth of Knowledge) and options for multiple students to answer simultaneously (using various tech tools) ➢    How did differentiation ensue? Asking questions at various levels (more open than closed questions, more analysis questions than knowledge questions) increased the number of students contributing answers which allowed the teacher to assess students’ understanding of concepts more thoroughly and adjust pacing for those students (differentiate the process) accordingly.

Formative Assessment

Formative assessment is the heart of differentiation as it provides the evidence as to what students know, don’t know and when done correctly, formative assessment provides both the teacher and student with information as to what to do next.

The biggest hurdle with formative assessment is many times the word assessment is misinterpreted (you can read more about that here) and teachers and students miss opportunities to use valuable pieces of evidence.

Example Formative Assessment Coaching Cycle Goal I want to involve students in the formative assessment process. ➢    Data Collected: Type of peer feedback offered ➢    Strategy used: Peer feedback and video analysis of feedback ➢    How did differentiation ensue? Student products were differentiated as peer feedback promoted student autonomy and allowed choice in showing mastery of a concept or skill.

In the end

Both instructional coaching and differentiation are complex topics and this blog post just scratches the surface. The more educators engage in dialogue about coaching and differentiation the more opportunity we all have to learn and perfect our craft. Please share your experiences with differentiation and working with/as an instructional coach by commenting below or connecting with me on Twitter @lisa_westman.

For more on differentiation, read these posts or check out my book Student-Driven Differentiation: 8 Steps To Harmonize Learning In The Classroom

For more on instructional coaching, read these posts:

Who Is Really Responsible For The Summer Slide?

This post was originally published in @PeterMDeWitt’s blog Finding Common Ground in Education Week.

Today’s post is written by frequent Finding Common Ground guest blogger Lisa Westman. Lisa is an instructional coach specializing in differentiation for Skokie School District 73.5 in suburban Chicago. She taught middle school gifted humanities, ELA, and SS for twelve years before becoming a coach.

School let out in the Chicago suburbs just over a week ago. While I have never been a proponent of the “last days of school countdown” and much prefer Twitter movements like #lastbell, I must admit, I like the time off. I appreciate waking up in the morning without an alarm and drinking coffee from a real mug.

Similarly, my children (ages 11 and 8) have enjoyed sleeping in and playing outside. It wasn’t until day 6 of our time-off together that we did something “educational.” We visited the library where we greeted by a large poster reminding us to read and avoid the dreaded “summer slide.”

What is the summer slide?
The summer slide refers to the phenomena of lost academic growth by students over the summer months when they are not actively engaged at school. On average, students lose one to three months of learning during the summer, with students from low-income homes being disproportionately affected (ASCD).

There are a plethora of recommendations for minimizing the impact of the summer slide. Most suggestions, including those listed in a recent article in Forbes Magazine, focus on two aspects of the slide, one preventative and one reactionary:

  1. what parents/guardians can do to avoid the summer slide

  2. what educators can/need to do to fix the damage done over the summer when school resumes in the fall

Why are we placing the burden of preventing the summer slide on parents?
As an educator, I have insight into what my children should be doing over the summer and I have the luxury of time-off to do things like read with them. Yet, to be honest, I don’t assess whether or not our activities help their retention nor do I want to do so. This leads me to wonder about the majority of parents who aren’t trained educators or who don’t have time-off from work. Are they really the right party to rely on to prevent the summer slide?

There are people, like Geoffrey Canada, who say the idea of no school in the summer is asinine altogether:

“every 10 years they reproduce the same study. It says exactly the same thing: Poor kids lose ground in the summertime. The system decides you can’t run schools in the summer…who makes up those rules? — I went the Harvard Ed School. I thought I knew something. They said it was the agrarian calendar, — but let me tell you why that doesn’t make sense….anyone knows if you farm, you don’t plant crops in July and August. You plant them in the spring” (Ted Talk, Our Failing Schools. Enough is Enough, 2013).

However, considering that a systemic change (like mandated year-round school) could take years to legislate, we ought to focus less on what parents and students should do to prevent the summer slide and focus more on what we (educators) can control.  The questions we should be asking ourselves are:

  1. What are we doing during the school year to ensure that the growth our students make is permanent?

  2. What are we (inadvertently) doing to make students resistant to learning in the summer?

And, I propose that the following practices (or lack thereof) are unwittingly contributing to our students’ summer slide:

Reliance on Bells and Schedules
During the nine months we have students in our classrooms we consistently send them subliminal messages that learning is fixed and structured, rather than fluid and ubiquitous. This is not malicious, but true nonetheless.

We offer our students instruction in the form of “periods” or “blocks” which typically rely on bells to indicate when learning starts and stops. Students learn reading from 8-9, and then they learn science from 9-10. And, while many schools claim to teach literacy in all classes, or engage in interdisciplinary learning, on the whole, these connections are not clear to students. Students struggle to transfer information learned in one class to another class, let alone from one year to another.

What we need to do is recognize, vocalize, and celebrate the fact that the content, skills, and concepts we cover in our classrooms just scratch the surface of what there is to be learned. We need to focus on building students’ metacognitive awareness so they recognize when and where they are learning, so they can self-identify what strategies to use to best understand the new information to which they are constantly exposed. By doing so, even when students are at home “playing video games” all summer, we give them the greatest opportunity to learn something from playing these games (plotline of a story, digital imagery, strategizing) and make connections.

Incorrectly “using” formative assessment
In Formative Assessment 2.0, Larry Ainsworth offers Stiggins’ explanation of formative assessment as something that, “happens while learning is still underway. These are the assessments that we conduct throughout teaching and learning to diagnose student needs, plan for next steps in instruction, provide students with feedback they can use…”

When done correctly, formative assessment (sometimes referred to as assessment for learning) informs both the teacher and the student of whether or not concepts/skills have been consistently mastered. The consistent “loss” of skills or knowledge over the summer months is indicative of improperly assessing students’ progress/mastery throughout the year. Furthermore, this loss suggests the focus is on moving students as a whole, rather than focusing on individual student growth which would require the use of formative assessment evidence to differentiate for their needs.

Perhaps, if we truly shift our focus to assessment for learning rather than assessment of learning, and resume teaching our students where they actually left-off the year before, the gaps will not be as cavernous.

Making reading a punishment
If (as advertised) reading is the key to preventing the summer slide; the one thing all educators must do is curate a love of reading.

Unfortunately, however, we tend to do just the opposite and systemize reading. For many students, reading is seen as a chore, a measure of compliance, or worse, something it is ok to “lie” about (read more about this here or here).

With this in mind, it is no wonder that students choose to not read in the summer. They need a break because reading feels strenuous and stressful.

Rather than assign reading in it of itself, we need to pose relevant and provocative questions which will naturally compel students to read. Instead of assigning 20 minutes of reading a night, we can ask students questions about what they read outside of class (online, in books, in magazines, even subtitles) and accept that reading takes on many forms.

When we expose students to reading in a variety of forms and recognize learning from reading of any source (wow, that’s pretty cool. where did you learn/read about that, I’ve never heard that before? Can you show me that?) it’s pretty incredible how much more students are willing to read.

In The End
Until school runs year-round we may never fully eradicate the summer slide. But, we can certainly do our best to ensure that what our students learn is permanent and not fleeting. What are your thoughts on the summer slide?

Questions about this post? Connect with Lisa on Twitter.

Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

Differentiation: Attainable Or Somewhere Over The Rainbow?

differentiation cleaning things up

This post was originally published in @PeterMDeWitt’s blog Finding Common Ground in Education Week.

Today’s guest post is written by frequent Finding Common Ground blogger Lisa Westman. Lisa is an instructional coach specializing in differentiation for Skokie School District 73.5 in suburban Chicago. She taught middle school gifted humanities, ELA, and SS for twelve years before becoming a coach.

“If we have data, let’s look at data. If all we have are opinions, let’s go with mine.” Jim Barksdale

If you want to get an educator’s attention, just say the word differentiation. Call me naive, but until last summer, I had no idea that this word provoked such a wide range of reactions from all education stakeholders.

Then, last August, I wrote my first guest blog post for Finding Common Ground, Yes Differentiation Is Hard. So, Let’s get It Right, and the floodgates opened. It turns out, people have strong feelings about differentiation, and I have been listening and gathering specifics on these views.

Since the post was published, I have written and presented about differentiation quite a few times. Most recently, I presented alongside Carol Ann Tomlinson at ASCD Empower17 and co-moderated #ohedchat on the topic. Every time I write or present on differentiation, I note the questions and comments readers or participants make, and I have found some common themes in response to the topic of differentiation, such as:

  • Teachers often feel unequipped to differentiate effectively.
  • Administrators don’t always recognize differentiation when they see it, or they think they see “differentiation” when what they really see is “different”.
  • Many gifted education advocates believe the needs of gifted students cannot be met in the ‘regular’ classroom through differentiation.
  • There is a pervasive generalization and misunderstanding of the words: assessment and data.

Over time, I plan to address the first three bullet points in detail, but for the purposes of this post, I want to explore the fourth item- the words assessment and data. The misleading associations with these words (assessment=test, data=numbers) have become a giant barrier for teachers who strive to differentiate instruction yet struggle to do so effectively.

The Wicked Witch of The West Assess
I was never the best geometry student, but the one thing that stuck with me was “all squares are rectangles, but not all rectangles are squares.” The same can be said about assessments, “all tests are assessments, but all not all assessments are tests.”

Merriam-Webster dictionary defines assess as, “to make an approximate or tentative judgment” and tests can certainly do this. However, often times tests are the least effective way to ascertain where students are and what they need. Test results amass a certain type of information and to differentiate successfully, other evaluations (observations, writing samples, conversations) and facets (social-emotional, aptitude, growth) of student performance must be considered.

The way we assess and the assessments we use give us the data we need to inform how to appropriately differentiate instruction for students. Therefore, if we are not using a variety of reliable assessments, our attempts to differentiate instruction often fall flat because the data we try to use doesn’t give us the information we need.

Follow The Yellow Brick Road Data
The word data does not have a warm connotation. Saying “data” in conjunction with student learning often feels sterile and uncaring. I often hear sentiments like, “students are more than a number.” And, when I presented with Carol Ann Tomlinson she responded to a question about using data with, “data sounds like something spit out by a machine.

And, I agree, students are more than a data point. They are more than a number spit out by a machine. And, so is data. Data is more than just numbers, and it can indeed be gathered and appraised in compassionate ways.

Let’s look at an analogous situation: a child’s visit to his pediatrician. When a child visits his doctor, he is more than a number there, too. Therefore, in order to form a diagnosis,  pediatricians look at a variety of evidence, some which comes from a lab or machine (weight, temperature, blood count) and some which comes from other assessments (conversations, questionnaires, observing the patient perform a task). Yet, there is little complaint about using multiple types of data in a medical setting. In fact, I surmise that if a doctor made a diagnosis without various types of data, there would be quite a bit of protesting.

So, what is the difference?

In education, we seem to think that the only usable data we have are numbers: test scores, IQ scores, attendance rates, etc.  This is like saying the only data a doctor can use is the patient’s height, weight, blood pressure, etc.

If this were the case, think of how many misdiagnoses would be made from only using these pieces of evidence? The doctor would not have some of the vital information (data) he needs to diagnosis the patient and prescribe a course of action.

Instead, doctors are also highly dependent on information that comes directly from the patient via conversations and observations. This is data which is collected with sensitivity and not calculated by an algorithm. A doctor uses information from all of these sources to differentiate his approach for his patients, so they thrive.

The same holds true for using data to differentiate for our students in the classroom. When we say the word data in education, we are simply referring to the different types of evidence we gather and consider to differentiate instruction for our students, so they thrive.

There’s No Place Like Home A Data Dashboard
In summary, differentiation is a natural byproduct of collecting and using the right information and the traditional methods of teacher data collection are quickly (if not already) obsolete.

Luckily, help is here. In Data Dashboards a High Priority in National Ed-Tech Plan, Education Week contributor Malia Herman states:

“The push for wider and better use of data (dashboards)–which allow educators to examine and connect relevant student data from multiple sources–is growing stronger…learning dashboards integrate information from assessments, learning tools, educator observations, and other sources to provide compelling, comprehensive visual representations of student progress in real time.”

To keep the analogy going, a data dashboard is like a patient’s chart at his doctor’s office. This is the place where all of the information is housed on individual students and their growth over time can be contemplated. And like a patient’s chart, only certain people are privy to individual student’s information. This comprehensive view of a student makes differentiating for their needs more accessible, attainable, and sustainable.

What are your thoughts? What is your experience using data to differentiate instruction? What successes and struggles have you encountered? Please comment below or tweet your response so we can learn from each other.

Questions about this post? Connect with Lisa on Twitter.


Differentiation is The Key to Assessment For Learning

teaching does not equal learning

“Too often, educational tests, grades, and report cards are treated by teachers as autopsies when they should be viewed as physicals.” Douglas Reeves

One of my favorite stories is about the man who taught his dog to whistle. The man was so proud of his teaching. He walked his dog around town and proudly proclaimed, “I taught my dog to whistle!”

Then, one day, a neighbor stops the man and says, “I don’t hear your dog whistling.”

To which the man responds, “I said I taught him to whistle, I didn’t say he learned.”


Think about your students past and present on a “test” day. Can you recall a student who was nervous? Maybe a student who even cried? This is a common reaction to assessment of learning rather than assessment for learning.

For many years assessment was used as a measure to inform teachers and students how students performed in comparison to each other at arbitrary points in time. Thankfully, with years of research and a shift in the way teaching and learning is approached, the recommended method of determining student success is by using assessment to measure growth. The focus has shifted to ensuring students learn rather than that teachers taught. Assessment results are no longer final verdicts for students, but rather information for them and their teachers on where to go next, otherwise known as assessment for learning.

Assessment for learning is the process of seeking and interpreting evidence for use by learners and their teachers to decide where the learners are in their learning, where they need to go and how best to get there, otherwise known as formative (Assessment Reform Group, 2002).

The key to effectively implementing assessment for learning is using the evidence gathered to inform instruction rather than just collecting data. Pre-assessments (or the first of a series of formative assessments) give teachers a starting point and formative assessment helps teachers set the pace and choose content and strategies for students as they progress in their learning. Too often, educators believe they are practicing assessment for learning, but they are not. Below are some common mistakes made which are contradictory to assessment for learning:

  • Collecting data (evidence) and not using it (watch this commercial for a funny visualization of this practice)
  • Simply not counting “formative” assessments toward a final grade, but not adapting pacing or differentiating for students who need modifications or extensions
  • Assessing the wrong criteria (i.e. assessing content recall when the learning target is a skill)
  • Focus on arbitrary dates to finish learning, like “end of quarter”

Quick check to see if you are using assessment for learning correctly

A quick test to see if you are using formative assessment properly is to ask yourself, “Am I differentiating for my students?” It is nearly impossible to practice assessment for learning without differentiating. When looking at evidence of learning, teachers will inevitably find that some students will move more quickly than others and need extensions while others will require scaffolding to achieve. Additionally, some students will need to approach the material in an entirely different way.

This is where differentiation is vital, teachers will need to determine which differentiation category or combination of categories: the content (what students learn), the process (how students learn), the product (how student demonstrate their understanding), and the learning environment (where and with whom students) they need to adapt  to meet the needs of their students:

Differentiating instruction is frequently the piece of assessment for learning that teachers find the most intimidating, but it doesn’t need to be this way. Below is a list of common concerns teachers have with differentiating instruction and some considerations that may help for ease these apprehensions.


In summary: in order for something to be taught, it must be learned. In order for all students to learn, appropriate evidence (assessment results) must be gathered and used to inform future instruction. As educators, the onus is on us to ensure students learn. When we confirm learning, we confirm we have taught.


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