Highly Effective Schools

by | Sep 24, 2018


Teaching standards in highly effective schools are the result of a collaborative effort by staff to incorporate research-based approaches, such as blended learning and project-based learning, into their practices.

When teaching staff is more highly attuned to the learning needs of individual students, they can expect higher standards of learning, which has been shown to increase student success. Formative assessments and differentiated instruction are crucial to achieving these educational outcomes, yet they become more complicated when blending them with these research-based practices. Below is a closer look at some ways to blend formative assessments and differentiated instruction with research-based teaching practices.

Formative Assessments

Since the definition of formative assessments is so broad, it’s often difficult to even know which practices constitute true formative assessments and which are summative. Broadly speaking, formative assessments are assessments or questions made during the learning process that give teachers insight into where students are struggling with a topic so that they can modify their teaching practices accordingly. They can be as simple as the questions raised in class or more complex in nature like diagnostic testing. This can be contrasted with evaluative assessments, which are larger data sets taken from student outcomes that allow teachers to modify their general pedagogy.

Formative assessments can be a powerful teaching tool in creating a successful school because teaching practices can be modified to fit the needs of students. Take a look at the following examples

  • ESL-based formative assessments are an excellent way to incorporate culturally responsive teaching practices in classrooms that have students who speak English as a second language. This gives teachers a chance to modify lessons as needed to improve individual success and allows students the opportunity to engage more fully in their own learning.
  • Formative assessments can be used to collect data in data-driven approaches to improving school performance. Assessments that monitor student progress throughout the learning process give administration a more accurate picture of how students are engaging with the curriculum.
  • Project-based learning can challenge traditional methods of assessment. This teaching method works best if assessments both include informal and ongoing conversations about projects and assess creative ability, work ethic, and problem-solving skills rather than simply focusing on information retention. Students can even be involved in the assessment process itself by using peer assessments so that feedback doesn’t only come from teachers.
  • In blended-learning environments, formative assessments can be strategically incorporated into lesson plans without increasing a teacher’s administrative workload. Digital teaching methods mean that more data can be collected as students learn, freeing up teachers to focus on how to best help individual students rather than simply reviewing their work.
  • Formative assessments can help staff identify how students draw from their own heritage or identities when learning, which can be another important way for teachers to utilize culturally responsive teaching practices. This, in turn, can make the curriculum more engaging for students who belong to marginalized groups since it allows their voices to be heard.

Differentiated Instruction

Formative assessments are only as good as their outcome, which must be a form of instruction that responds to it. Differentiated instruction refers to instruction that has been modified to fit the needs of individual students. Since students come from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds and have a variety of learning styles, differentiated instruction ensures that classroom exercises do not cater to one kind of student while underserving another.Teachers can implement differentiated instruction by offering a variety of learning methods that students can choose from or by grouping students together based on learning similarities indicated in formative assessments.

Teachers can also apply differentiated instruction by allowing students to choose what the final product of their learning will look like. Project-based learning allows for greater flexibility in this regard because it offers students the opportunity to engage deeply with a subject matter in a way that they are passionate about.

For example, perhaps some students produce an essay while others produce a video—in both situations, it’s possible to determine the depth of understanding students have of a subject matter while still allowing them the opportunity to express that knowledge in a way that interests them.

Differentiated instruction can apply to the classroom environment as well, structuring it so that there are spaces that promote quiet and independent learning and others that promote discussion and group learning.

Differentiated instruction and formative assessments also naturally foster a whole-child approach to teaching and education since teachers have more information about and engagement with students on an individual level. This helps screen for issues that could impact a child’s learning ability, such as mental health or physical health issues, which increases the likelihood that children get the external help they need, such as counseling or physical therapy. This, in turn, creates solutions in classrooms where children have behavioral difficulties and rely on social support systems to fix the causes of these problems rather than depending on teachers alone.

Criticisms of differentiated instruction include that the approach creates overworked staff who struggle to create multiple learning plans that cater to individual students; however, the philosophy of playing to individual strengths and learning styles doesn’t necessarily need to increase the workload of teachers. Any new educational approach must be sensitive to the resources available to any school and realistic in its implementation.

Holli Levy points out that most classroom instruction involves differentiated instruction in one way or another. She claims, “As educators, we can make our classrooms more responsive to student needs by being more systematic in our approach to differentiation.” Differentiated instruction can and should be implemented to increase the success of a school, but its implementation should be carefully monitored and introduced in small, sustainable increments. Additionally, the goal of differentiated instruction is not to eliminate standards, but to allow students to achieve those standards in a way that’s realistic for them. Combining effective formative assessment tools with differentiated instruction is a great road map toward a highly effective school.


Crooks, T. (2001). The validity of formative assessments. British Educational Research Association Annual Conference, University of Leeds.

Hume, K. (2007). Start where they are: Differentiating for success with the young adolescent. Toronto: Pearson Education Canada.

Levy, H. M. (2008). Meeting the needs of all students through differentiated instruction: Helping every child reach and exceed standards.” Preventing School Failure.

Marzano, R. J. (2003). What works in schools: Translating research into action. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Morrison, D. & Debarger, A. H. (2016). How can formative assessment support culturally responsive argumentation in a classroom community? http://stemteachingtools.org/brief/25/

Schmoker, M. (2010). When pedagogic fads trump priorities. Education Week. https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2010/09/29/05schmoker.h30.html

Shepard, L. A. (2005). Formative assessment: Caveat emptor. ETS Invitational Conference, The Future of Assessment: Shaping Teaching and Learning, New York.