Friday / June 14

What Is Identity Safe Formative Assessment? Part I 

About the Identity Safe Formative Assessment Five-Part Blog Series 

Formative assessment (FA) operates as a feedback loop. Together, educators and students set goals, assess, and adjust learning in real time based on collected evidence combined with feedback. Identity Safety is an equity-focused approach where students of all backgrounds feel valued and supported.  

This first of a five-part blog series explains identity safe formative assessment drawing from the West Ed Formative Assessment Loop and a series of interviews with leading equity-focused scholars and practitioners, many of whom are quoted in this blog series. We also were informed by student and educator interviews from Leadership Public Schoolswho have piloted identity safe formative assessment practices. Finally, we take a deeper look at growth mindset, counternarratives, deliberate practice, productive struggle, and wise feedback. 

What Is Identity Safe Formative Assessment? Part I 

Reflect on your assessment experiences. Were you proud of your accomplishments? Were you embarrassed after receiving a bad grade? Now, consider your students. How do assessments forge their academic identity, impacting their choices, their futures? 

Formative assessment (FA) is a process that empowers students and educators to guide learning through goal setting, evidence gathering, feedback, analysis, and planning. In multiple studies, a robust FA process is one of the most impactful instructional factors for improving learning and achievement (Marzano 2008, Hattie 2013). 

Identity safe teaching is an approach where students’ social identities are treated as assets rather than barriers to learning, where they feel welcomed, accepted, valued. Incorporating identity safety in FA powerfully enacts belief in students. Author Mica Pollock (2018) explains that identity safe formative assessment (ISFA) “requires that teachers ask themselves: “Which of our everyday acts move specific students or student populations toward educational opportunities, and which acts move them farther away from it?’”

FA without a basis of trust may be experienced as confirming stereotypes or attributing inferiority rather than supporting learning. Thus, ISFA is crucial for students of all backgrounds to take charge of their learning, strengthening their academic competence and identity. 

What’s at Stake? 

Author Zaretta Hammond (2018) reminds us of “the predictability of who’s at the top and who’s at the bottom. . . . [with] too many students of color, too many black and brown kids, lowincome students, and English learners at the bottom. If we don’t interrupt that, what ends up happening is white educators start to think children of color are broken. Attempting to fix them often fails, leaving these students permanently behind with internalized feelings of inadequacy.” 

Claude Steele (2018), renowned researcher, explains, “Stereotype threat is first the threat of being judged by the stereotype by those in one’s environment. Sometimes this is also a worry about behaving in a way that would result in them being perceived that way. But as long as they are identified with school, they resist believing the stereotype. That’s the struggle. Once they give up on schooling and find another domain of life to identify with, they may or may not believe the stereotype. At that point though it is largely irrelevant to them since they no longer care about school. But until then, I believe they are fighting valiantly not to believe the stereotype.”  

Infusing identity safety into FA transforms the learning experience, especially for those who have felt stigmatized about their identities. 

The Formative Assessment Cycle 

The FA process offers an ongoing feedback loop, supporting students and educators in assessing growth through three guiding questions: 1. Where Am I Going?; 2. Where Am I Now?; and 3. Where to Next? FA happens in the learning zone, described thus by Eduardo Briceño: “. . . when our goal is to improve, we concentrate on what we haven’t mastered yet, which means we have to expect to make mistakes, knowing that we will learn from them.” 

Hammond, explains, that through formative assessment, “the cognitive load can be over time shifted to the students. When they observe their own growth and experience ongoing support at getting better, they expand their sense of competence. Confidence as a result of increased competence helps replace negative and hopeless narratives with optimism and the confidence that they are indeed capable.” Ali Michael, anti-racist educator and author, observes “[In] FA, students have a clear sense of their own learning styles and where they are in terms of learning the material, ensuring they are less likely to feel that they are being subjected to stereotypes about their learning or performance [leading to] a better sense of autonomy, feeling in charge of their own learning.”  

Pollock (2018) suggests that educators employ formative assessment to “turn the lens on their teaching, using evidence of student learning to improve their instructional practices in ways that move all students closer to opportunity.” 

Identity Safe Practices in Formative Assessment 

Identitysafety researcher Mary Murphy explains “FAs have the power to create a relationship between educator and student. It’s an opportunity to show the student that you know what interests them, and where they are in their learning. [In this way FA bridges] gaps for underrepresented students who oftentimes suffer from feeling as though they’re not known by their teachers.” LPS students interviewed about FA confirmed that their teachers knowing and caring about them were both necessary and motivating. 

An ISFA framework asks educators to consider goal-setting, implementing growth mindsetwhich as renowned researcher Carol Dweck (2018) explains “helps students who may be stuck or feel they are not smart come to understand learning as a process. [Just because] you’re not there yet, it’s not over!” They employ counter-narratives to challenge prevailing assumptions, refuting stereotypes that hamper confidence. They teach about deliberate practice, applying effective effort and productive struggle, encouraging persistence in the face of academic challenges. They offer feedback in ways that motivate.  

Concluding Thoughts 

ISFA has tremendous potential to transform student experiences. In subsequent blogs, we expand on the three guiding questions of an ISFA process to increase motivation and agency, contributing to a positive academic identity.  

*Educational Leaders Interviewed for This Post 

Jennifer Abrams 

Eduardo Briceño  

Carol Dweck  

Zaretta Hammond 

Patrick Lee 

Ali Michael  

Eddie Moore 

Mary Murphy 

Mica Pollock 

Milton Reynolds 

Claude Steele 


Briceño, E. (2018) Personal interview. Leadership Public Schools. Unpublished 

Dweck, C. (2018) Personal interview. Leadership Public Schools. Unpublished 

Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on learning. Abingdon, UK: Routledge 

Hammond, Z. (2018) Personal interview. Leadership Public Schools., Unpublished 

Marzano, R.J. (2008). Classroom assessment and grading that work. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.  

Murphy, M. (2018) Personal interview. Leadership Public Schools. Unpublished 

Pollock, M, (2018) Personal interview. Leadership Public Schools. Unpublished 

Steele, C. M. (2010). Whistling Vivaldi: and other clues to how stereotypes affect us. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company. 

Steele, (2018) Personal interview. Leadership Public Schools. Unpublished 

WestEd, Student Agency in Learning Course 

Retrieved on March 2, 2019 from 

Written by

Coauthor of Identity Safe Classrooms, Grades K-5 and Grades 6-12, Becki Cohn-Vargas, Ed.D., works with educators to create identity safe classrooms and schools. Currently, as a consultant, she presents, writes, coaches, and produces films about bullying prevention, implicit bias, inclusion, compassion and belonging. She has worked as a teacher, principal, curriculum director, and superintendent in urban, suburban, and rural communities. Formerly, as Director of Not In Our School, Becki published the Identity Safe and Inclusive School Program, a comprehensive guide for creating identity safe secondary schools. Her website, Beckicohnvargas.comfeatures additional blogs and films. 

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