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Tuesday / April 25

Differentiation is The Key to Assessment For Learning

Differentiation is The Key to Assessment For 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.”

Teaching Is Not Synonymous with Learning

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 student learns 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 extentions 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.

Differentiation is Key

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.

Written by

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. You can find out more about Lisa by visiting and by connecting with her on Twitter @lisa_westman.

Latest comments

  • Thank you for such a clear and understandable take on differentiation. Unfortunately, I find myself making some of the mistakes you listed in your article. However, I am determined to get better, and your article gave me some ideas to get started.

    • Michelle- thank you very much for taking the time to read and comment. I am so happy to hear you found the post helpful and are inspired to set a goal for yourself! Please don’t hesitate to reach out to me should you want a thinking partner in the process. @lisa_westman on Twitter or you can email me through my personal blog:

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