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The Role of Assessment in Differentiated Instruction

Kathy Long, FOSS Assessment Coordinator, Lawrence Hall of Science
March 26, 2015 | Assessment

The term "differentiated instruction" can have a variety of meanings in the education world and can refer to many aspects of a students' learning. For the purposes of this article I am defining differentiated instruction as "the ways in which a teacher plans for and responds to student needs that require attention in order for students to be successful in their academic and conceptual learning." When differentiated instruction is called for, teachers might modify what is being taught, how it is taught, and/or how students demonstrate what they learned. Differentiated instruction at its best takes into account all aspects of a child's background and academic profile (see the "Science for all Students" article in this issue on page 1). But where does assessment fit in? Assessment is the bridge between teaching and knowledge and the bridge that connects one learning experience to the next.

In many classrooms across the nation, assessment is seen as an end in itself. A curriculum is taught, a test is given, a judgment is made. Not much happens as a result other than some students are happy and others are not. FOSS has taken the stance that assessment can and should be much more than evaluation of a fait accompli. Perhaps this requires "assessment" to be imbued with a new meaning. We can no longer think of assessment as a test or a grade; students and parents are demanding and deserve more than that. Frankly, grades don't convey much information. Rather we need to think of assessment as a way to gather information about students' emerging knowledge so that we can take action to make sure that they are on a trajectory to meet the learning goals at the end of an instructional unit. It's a dynamic process, not a summary product.

The FOSS assessment system is made up of two large components: embedded and benchmark assessments. Embedded assessment occurs on a daily basis. It is a way for teachers to check in on students' thinking with a short 10-minute process that yields big returns (see the Assessment chapter in any Third Edition or Next Generation Edition FOSS Investigations Guide, as well as previous "FOSS Assessment Corner" articles). Embedded assessments are very narrowly focused, but provide valuable information for differentiating instruction. Benchmark assessments have a broader focus and occur before instruction (survey), after most investigations (I-Checks), and at the end of instruction (posttest). While these look like fairly traditional tests, how they are used is very different. Teachers review I-Checks to look for patterns and trends in students' learning, but they return the tests to the students with no marks on them. Then they follow up with a series of student self-assessment activities. Because the follow-up activities are self-assessment, they are necessarily differentiated—each student reflecting on her/his own understanding of the subject matter.

We can "train" teachers to do the actions needed to perform this kind of assessment, but the real power cannot be realized until it becomes a belief system and a natural practice, rather than a mechanical routine. This requires a paradigm shift, a shift much harder to accept and enact than many might think.

  1. Teachers must consider themselves action researchers rather than deliverers of curriculum. No curriculum (even FOSS!) can anticipate the needs of every student in the class. We have researched the activities and know that they are generally successful, but for every student to meet the learning goals requires a teacher, actively keeping an eye (and ear) on what is happening with individual students. The old paradigm was deliver the curriculum and if the students get it, great, if they don't, maybe they'll get it next year. The new paradigm requires that we acquire information and build on it to ensure that all students meet the targeted learning goals. You get to play detective and piece together evidence for learning or find alternate conceptions for which solutions can be successfully employed. Art Linkletter was right, kids do say the darnedest things! What makes it so enticing is that when you really stop to think about what they say, no matter how wacky it may seem at first, you can usually find a connection that shows how students were attempting to make sense of the activities, words, and discussions. We have to trust that most of the time students are doing their best to make sense of the world around them and in the case of FOSS, the science concepts they are exposed to.

  2. Having a growth v. fixed mindset. If the students don't get it the first time, it does not necessarily mean that the students "just aren't ready" or "don't have the intelligence" nor does it mean that you are a bad teacher or that the curriculum is lousy (as long as you know you're using a well-researched curriculum like FOSS). ALL it means is that the kids didn't get it...yet.

    The old paradigm is that everyone should be able to do everything perfectly the first time (if they are smart and attentive). The new paradigm understands that mistakes and failures are an expected and acceptable part of learning. Many very successful people today made plenty of mistakes and faced failure along the way. But they didn't give up. They didn't think "this is too hard" or "I'm just not good at this." They learned from their mistakes and moved forward. This is the culture we need to instill in our students. Mistakes and confusion are natural parts of learning. We learn a lot by not being afraid of or daunted by mistakes. Carol Dweck's work (2006) points out that students who develop a growth mindset are those who can deal with failure and make something positive from it. They expect to fail on occasion, but they also know that if they continue to put in the effort, they will succeed.

    This is where assessment and teacher feedback come in. Teachers need to assess students on a daily basis so they know where students need help (as well as helping students know this themselves), or at the other end of the spectrum, when they need to speed things up or provide more complex challenges.

  3. Differentiating instruction. The old paradigm for assessment suggests an impersonal, uninformative statistical analysis, "Five students got As, 15 got Bs, 10 got Cs." The new paradigm suggests differentiated diagnoses. But it is also unrealistic to think that you can create 30 lesson plans for 30 students on a daily basis for every subject or class taught. In order to be realistic, teachers need to look for patterns in students' understanding that allow them to group students in ways that make differentiation manageable. "The possibilities are many, but the goal is to look for clusters of student need and plan ways to help each group of students move ahead" (Tomlinson, 2014).

    It's important to think about why students didn't get it, but it's even more important to ask, "What can I do to take students to the next step of understanding?" There might be many factors playing into why a student didn't get it. Perhaps they have little background knowledge and need more first-hand experience. Perhaps they need more specific, basic vocabulary to help them explain a phenomenon. Perhaps they are just learning English and need additional support or a modified means of showing what they know. There are many reasons why a student might not get or be able to demonstrate knowledge of the content the first time. FOSS knows that teachers have the expertise to reflect on interactions that occur in the classroom, and plan what is needed to help each student move forward within the context of the larger curricular sequence. When assessment/reflection happen on a regular basis, the course corrections are often surprisingly small and can be implemented as part of the next lesson.

Page from an Investigation Guide
  1. Students need to take a bigger role in the process. Perhaps one of the most difficult transitions for teachers making this paradigm shift is turning over more responsibility for learning to students. This is an important part of developing a classroom culture that embraces a growth mindset. Students need to have an active role in self-assessment and self-differentiation: understanding goals, then assessing their own progress, reflecting on where they may have information gaps, and taking action to make improvements. These are important skills needed for lifelong learning. The old paradigm is to go over the test and give the students the right answers. The new paradigm is to return papers without any teacher marks on them and to engage in additional activities around an item or two that help students identify their own mistakes or limitations and how to correct them. In the FOSS Assessment chapter, you'll find a starter library of next-step and self-assessment strategies to use for this purpose. Few teachers that have fully embraced this practice have ever reported to FOSS that the students weren't interested, or showed less effort in learning. In most cases, students are thrilled to take this active role—so much so that they begin asking their teachers when they get to take the next I-Check so they can see what they've learned and what they still need to work on! This makes the learning experience unique and transparent for each student. By self-assessing, each child is learning how he/she learns. The task of differentiated instruction may be that of the teacher; however, empowering students to use what they know about how they learn (metacognition) helps them become self-differentiating learners.

Assessment is the bridge that allows teachers and students to differentiate learning. Without a means of making students' thinking visible, you can teach a series of lessons that make logical sense, but you won't know if it is making sense to students. Are they getting to a deeper and more meaningful knowledge that can be applied to the world at large? FOSS has spent the last decade developing the assessment system you now see in the Third Edition and Next Generation Edition modules to help answer this question.


  • Carol Dweck (2006). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Random House; New York.
  • Carol Ann Tomlinson (2014). "The Bridge Between Today's Lesson and Tomorrow's." Using Assessments Thoughtfully, pp. 10-14 (March 2014, Volume 71, Number 6).