Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Differentiating Assessment

“The primary purpose of assessment is to improve student learning” -Anne Davies, PHD.
The above quote sums up why I challenged my assessment practices. In 2013, as a High School Math teacher, here is the model I used:
  • Teach concept 
  • Various quizzes during the learning journey.
  • Summative unit exam.
  • Repeat 
After 8 years of teaching in this model, I realized there was an issue...students who entered my class with passion towards mathematics, were leaving the class beaten down, sometimes dropping out, and ultimately not having the desire to learn more math.

Originally, I thought this was normal!! When I went to high school, math classes always ended with less students than it started with. As a student, I remember daily expectations of having to do the odd (or even) numbered questions on page X, multiple worksheets, and having to prepare for weekly quizzes or tests. This was my normality. This was the machine I wanted to perpetuate when I entered teaching.


Because this worked for me. I am intrinsically motivated by mathematics, and I find prime, fibonacci, and complex numbers inherently interesting...because they are!! However, too many people have not had the chance to struggle, discover, and play with these awesome, and other, mathematical ideas.

In 2013, as an educator, I saw the true assessment style was more about ranking, sorting and grading, not at all about learning. Even furthermore, I was more focused on preparing students for AP, or diploma exams, instead of creating an environment which allowed students to bring their passions and interests in, next to their pencils and paper.

Similar to the comic, my grades were focused on what was easy to test, grade, and report on, instead of what was important.

This had to change. If I was differentiating my instruction, why was I focusing on standardizing my assessment?

In 2013, I made a stand:
I will only assess in a way that increases learning; if my assessment isn’t increasing learning then the assessment needs to change.
In this year, my late friend Joe Bower reminded me “the word ‘assessment’ comes from the latin word ‘Assidere’: to sit beside”; an action that was rarely taken when I was assessing my students.

Here is my journey, and the steps I took, to explore what it mean to provide differentiated assessment.

1. Manageable outcomes:
In consultation with University professors, colleagues, and teachers across the province, I looked at every course outcome through the “Rock, Sand, Water” analogy: If you plan for the rocks first, then sand and then water, it will all fit, however if you simply plan a course to cover all outcomes equally, all the outcomes will rarely fit.

During this process I combined parts of one outcome with another, broke up some outcomes into smaller chunks, and then I created a list of “Rock, Sand and Water” objectives:

  • Rock outcomes (outcomes that pass the endurance, leverage and readiness test) - Expect ALL students to master. 
  • Sand outcomes - Expect MOST students to master. 
  • Water outcomes - Expect SOME of my students to master. 
I then ensured that these decisions reflected in my long range outcomes, course outlines, and daily plans. I planned my courses in a way to ensure that the essential learning outcomes were weaved throughout the entire year, while less essential outcomes were covered through the lens of a higher leverage outcome. Of course, I still taught all the outcomes, but I decided to only report on the essential ones, regardless of how difficult it might be to do so.

2. Change the tests
After having a smaller list of outcomes to report on, I decided to ensure my summative assessments matched this philosophy. Instead of giving tests grouped by question type, I grouped questions based on outcome. Any assessment that covered more than 1 outcome would be given back to students with more than 1 grade. Each grade represented the learning of the student on a specific outcome; no longer did I average 2 or 3 outcomes into one mark and call it “Unit X Test”. I then changed the categories on the online reporting program to “outcomes” instead of “Quizzes, tests, homework, etc”. Every mark, on a specific outcome, was reported in the corresponding “outcome” category.

3. Ensure learning is the focus on every assessment
During this time, my summative assessments where 1 part multiple choice, 1 part numerical response and 1 part written. Simply sorted by outcomes not by question type.

I quickly realized that when my students answered a multiple choice question wrong (or even when they guessed right) I was clueless as to how to support them from their current understanding to mastery. If I wanted learning to be the primary focus, I could not administer multiple choice exams.

In 2014-2015 I moved to an entire written response assessment strategy grouped by outcomes. Instead of 1 part multiple choice, 1 part numerical response, and 1 part written, I only assessed with questions that forced students to make their understanding visible. It was in this year, I truly started to sit next to my students and provide them written and verbal feedback that pushed their learning forward instead of simply saying “here are the X questions you answered incorrectly and here are the correct answers”. My feedback was focused on learning, not on which questions did they answer wrong.

I was writing grades and comments on everything my students handed in. This was the inherent problem; I was giving both grades and comments.

Every time I handed back an assessment with a mark, I quickly noticed that students focused on their individual grade, their friend’s grade; and how they ranked within their peer group; and most completely ignored the comments. Students were not asking “How do I understand this better?” but instead “How do I get an A (or 90% or excellent)?”

I had invested a lot of my time into giving useful and effective feedback however these comments were being overshadowed by mark. Grades were the commodity of my classroom not learning. This had to change.

4. Challenge the grading system

Simply put, I stopped writing grades, learning levels, or any other ranking system on student work. Instead I only provided feedback and asked questions that pushed learning forward. Even if a student demonstrated “mastery” of an outcome, I would still provide feedback or leave them with a question that pushed them beyond the scope of the outcome.

This was the most profound transformation I have ever experienced in my entire career.

Students truly became engaged in their learning, not their grade (or ranking). As well, I was able to truly push my students forward when they made mistakes. When I looked at the work of my students, I simply focused on 3 essential questions:

  • What does success on the essential learning outcome (rock outcome) look like? 
  • Where is the student now? 
  • How do we close gap? 

This ensured that the feedback I was providing to students was truly “learning focused”. Every written comment was also input into our online reporting system.

This meant that when a parent, or a student, logged into our online reporting tool, they didn’t see grades, but instead comments for any outcome. Instead of seeing “80%” on an outcome, parents (and students) would see what they need to work on to close the gap...without the support of a grade.

Even the conversations I was having with parents were learning focused and not grade focused. Incredible shift! At the beginning of the year, parents were apprehensive of not receiving any marks as feedback, however when parents saw the products their children were bringing home from my courses, parents were quick to become allies of this new model of assessment.

5. Differentiate the assessments
I finally started a “Differentiated Assessment” model. After teaching outcome X, I would have an assessment on the outcome, however, I started to use this time to also assess each students’ understanding on a previous outcome. For example, students who were also being retaught ideas on outcome 2 would have questions around outcome 2 on their sheet, the ones who were working on outcome 3 would see questions around this outcome...truly every single assessment was tiered to the individual student and what he/she has been working on in the previous weeks.

The assessment Jimmy and Jane received on this day, would only match if they were working on identical material with identical errors and misconceptions; which was rarely the case. Even when designing the questions from previous outcomes, the questions were focused around the feedback the learner had received on their last assessment. For example:
  • Jane might be tasked to demonstrate understanding of a specific part of a certain essential outcome, because I saw only a minor learning gap when I previously assessed her on this outcome. 
  • Jimmy, however, might have more questions around the same essential outcome, because when I assessed him previously I saw major learning gaps. 
This is when learning became the focus of every single assessment I gave. I can honestly say that every assessment had learning as the only priority!

Looking back, I have always believed that every child can learn math to the highest levels, but only in the past 3 years did I take a differentiated approach to what happens when they don’t.


  1. Its wonderful. Can You provide your email-id as I want some extended discussion on 4th and 5th topic. My email

  2. Just a few questions...
    1. Do you have to give a number grade at the end of the course?
    2. How many assessments of learning outcomes do you give during the course?
    Thanks for the idea! Trying to wrap my head around the feasibility of this idea for me in the constraints of our system.

    1. i would like to know the answers to these too!

  3. FAbulous read!!
    we are wanting more detail on how you manage differentiating assessments. Seems wonderful but overwhelming. And if a student continues to struggle on a certain target does he receive the exact same questions over and over again?

  4. Well said! After attending your session on differentiated assessment you ended it with, "Just go back to your class and do one thing you've always wanted to do that will focus on learning instead of grading." - So, I did. I threw out every multiple choice quiz and test I ever gave. I never put another grade on another paper and the shift was INCREDIBLE!

    As you stated above, this is A GAME CHANGER! I have been under the pressure of aligning my assessments to fit with departments and mimic PAT's. It felt uncomfortable, it was not me. Not my teaching style because from these types of assessments I could not differentiate easily and I could not gather a true understanding of where each student was stuck.
    I stopped the cycle of insanity of teach, quiz, summative, repeat the very next day! I am not even sure how to put this part in words but I will give it a shot. The shift I began to see in my grade 7's and 8's was incredible! They began to see meaning in what they were doing and by understanding exactly what they didn't understand and where they needed to go came INTRINSIC MOTIVATION (Something I have been told over and over that teenagers are just not capable of).
    Now, don't get me wrong, I don't put grades on my assessments but I am always assessing! The feedback is in emails, comments on documents, verbal, written etc. The students are not only starting to get it but they are learning deeper than I ever thought possible. I teach in a fully project based classroom and assessing with differentiated assessments has turned the PBL environment into the most powerful learning environment I have ever seen.
    I am required to give a number grade so following your advice, my assessments are outcome based and at the end the students pick a grade. That's what they get! The shift moved instantly from focus on grades to focus on how to get to the next learning outcome.
    The differentiation looks as you have outlined and if they are not showing mastery on an outcome I do ask questions that are worded differently.
    The morning I changed everything, I thought exactly what most think. I thought it was going to be the most overwhelming task I have ever taken on. The exact opposite happened. The flow is so natural that I am actually freed up MORE to help one on one or in small group situations. Assessment has never been more powerful or meaningful and it was EASIER than teach, quiz, test, repeat. It not only gets easier it becomes FUN. I literally jump out of bed every single morning so excited to see who has mastered what and where they are working in their learning. They now have ownership and I get to be the guide, the coach, the wind beneath their wings! I will never, ever go back to the cycle of insanity that I once knew. Thank you for sharing your knowledge with me and I look forward to continue sharing my success and stories with you.

    I feel free.

    Thank you,
    Tia Vandermeer

    1. Hi! Thank you for sharing! I enjoyed reading your post. You had me until "the students pick a grade. That's what they get!" Care to elaborate? Off hand, it just seems like they get to choose what grade they get even if they didn't learn anything. Can you clarify?

  5. This is great! I've been assessing against outcomes and helping others do so for a while now and this really adds a lot. Your suggestions for how to synthesize outcomes by looking at "rock" outcomes is very appealing, as I've previously struggled with too many data points. I would like to see some specific examples of what you ended up reporting on for a course.
    The "game changer" section is something I've been looking forward to doing, and indeed part of the reason I'm excited to go back to a school.
    Great work Dave! Thanks.

  6. Thank you for your intriguing post. I am still a student working toward my BA in Math Education (5-9). This term will be my first writing a lesson plan, next term observations, then demonstration before graduation. Consequently, I do not have the background experience to fully comprehend the "how" of your assessment strategy, but I do get the why. Currently, I am a Tutoring Center Specialist at our local community college where I assist many students in overcoming the hurdles of math and train student tutors to do the same. The joy of inspiring and motivating students in the beauty and joy of mathematics, as well as avoiding the negative experiences that have driven so many away from it, is why do what I do and why I want to teach mathematics. Do you have details (as in a an example) on another site of how your assessment strategy works? Thank you for reading my reply. I sincerely look forward to hearing from you.

  7. Very intriguing. Do you have assessment examples posted ? Or a typical feedback sample ? We need to prepare kids for provincial testing ( including multiple choice ) in Ontario and for that reason Im hesitant to simply delete MC style of questions. I’m also wondering about a final grade ?

  8. I am so grateful to have found this post! I had no idea where the root word of assess meant to sit beside. We over-assess students, and it is NOT sitting beside. It is the grueling process of students struggling and/or giving up before they have a chance to demonstrate their understanding. This is a beautiful image of being an educator, and I want to find a way to implement this true form of assessment. It is what has always made me love tutoring and working with students who were being home-schooled. This was when I was the most effective at this process of helping students understand what they know and helping them to grow there. How to take this concept to a larger scale in the classroom is a challenge that I accept! Sincerest thanks from an educator who wants to do better.

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