Wednesday / December 2

What Is Identity Safe Formative Assessment, Part II

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.  

In this second of a five-part blog seriesI explore the three phases of identity-safe informative assessment, drawing from the West Ed Formative Assessment Loopa series of interviews with leading equity-focused scholars and practitioners, and student and educator interviews from Leadership Public Schoolswho have piloted identitysafe formative assessment practices. You can access Part I here. 

What Is Identity Safe Formative Assessment? Part II   

Fostering identity safety during the FA cycle begins by creating a supportive environment that includes: 

  1. Trust between the educator and students
  2. A collaborative space
  3. A growth mindset environment
  4. Use of asset-based language

Eddie Moore, founder of The White Privilege Conference and co-editor of The Guide for White Women Who Teach Black Boys, warns that after repeated negative school experiences, many black students don’t trust educators or hesitate to seek help or admit when they are struggling. These students may neglect to apply effort and give up.  

In contrast, Brady, Leadership Public Schools student, explains, “I’m just going to be honest, Mr. Carranza really cares about his students. . . He actually worries if we’re falling off, if we’re not getting the subject. What I love about him is [that] he gives us respect [and communicates] that we really matter. Us students, we don’t want to let Carranza down, so we give him the same respect, too.” In an identity safe environment, students become willing to be vulnerable and open to meaningful reflection required for the three FA phases.  

Phase 1: Where Am I Going? 

Phase 1 starts with goal setting for specific learning targets, based on objectives, content standards, and specific skills. Students help select rigorous, achievable goals. Mary Murphy (2018) suggests having students explore “Where is it that I want to grow in this area? What is it that I want to know and be able to do by the end of this lesson or semester?” Without judgment, educators help students assess what they know and can do, and what they need to learn. Then they identify “success criteria,” determining how to know when goals are met. Murphy suggests reframing the terminology from success stating, “I would call them growth criteria because I’m afraid the term success oftentimes signals that you’ve made it, you’ve completed your learning. Instead, cultivating effortful engagement, you’re always pushing yourself toward the next content that you’re trying to learn.”  

In Phase 1, identity safe educators express high standards and confidence in each student’s ability to meet the goals and apply meaningful effort.  

Phase 2: Where Am I Now? 

To meet growth criteria, students collect evidence from performance tasks, quizzes, tests, or work samples aligned to learning goals. Evidence, at the heart of FA, is garnered as follows: 

  1. Activating prior knowledge: Murphy (2018) recommends gathering “stories or anecdotes [that] emerge through student’s relationships with family, culture, and community.” She points out that unless assessments draw from multiple ways of demonstrating knowledge, we won’t be able to provide equitable access for all.  
  2. Observation and analysis of student work using rubrics: Students calibrate, collectively score “anchor” pieces, and compare rubric ratings, deepening clarity of what the task looks like when done well. 
  3. Academic dialogue and questioning: Educators or students record participation in academic discourse, including questions and contributions.  
  4. Self-assessment: Students record examples of evidence, analyzing progress and explaining thinking. 
  5. Peer assessment: Students can learn to provide objective rather than subjective feedbackbuilding trust.  

Jennifer Abrams, author of Hard Conversations, contends that if you know what you’re looking for, you can spot and label what an individual student is doing, offering supportive, personalized, and specific feedback.  

Phase 3: Where to Next? 

Phase 3 includes reviewing goals, evidence, and criteria from assessments combined with cumulative feedback from the learning experience. Students analyze progress to ascertain if and how goals were met and identify continued growth needs.  

Educators support students to determine next steps. They adjust goals that were set too high or low. As Dweck (2018) says, they need not feel shame or worry if they have “not yet” met goals, but rather can continue applying effort. The beauty of drawing from a growth mindset in this process is that students can celebrate progress.  

Concluding Thoughts 

Educators engage in equitable practices in each phase of ISFA. Leadership Public Schools student Ricky reflects “Honestly, my teacher can say that the retake is optional, but deep inside he wants us to do the retake. I’ve known him for just a couple of months but I know that he wants us to improve. I would rather take it – he’s so nice and kind with us. He’s so supportive when it comes to one of us failing or something. When he says, “Oh, you can do this and this!” – I actually do those things, because I know that those things are going to support me. And when I need help, he’s actually there.” A powerful benefit of formative assessment is the opportunity to empower students to drive their own learning, make course corrections, and develop a strong academic identity. 

Take a look at this Leadership Public Schools ISFA Planner for building identity safe principles into the assessment loop 


Abrams, J. (2018). Personal Interview. Leadership Public Schools. Unpublished 

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

LPS Student Interview (2018). Brady. [Video file] Leadership Public Schools 

LPS Student Interview (2018). Rickey. [Video file] Leadership Public Schools. 

Michael, A. (2018). Personal interview. Leadership Public Schools.Unpublished 

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

Murdoch, S. (2007). IQ, The Smart History of a Failed Idea. John Wiley and Sons, Hoboken, NJ. 

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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