Wednesday / May 22

What Is Identity Safe Formative Assessment? Part III 

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 explained 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 Schools, who have piloted identity safe formative assessment practices. Finally, we take a deeper look at growth mindset, counter–narratives, deliberate practice, productive struggle, and wise feedback.  

Infusing Counter-Narratives to Build Confidence and Competence in Identity Safe Formative Assessment  

Imagine you’re a high school student.  For several years, you’ve heard about the “achievement gap” where students with your ethnicity are judged to perform worse in school than peers of other backgrounds.  You have watched friends who share your identity fail repeatedly or drop out. You harbor the uneasy feeling that your teachers don’t expect you to achieve. With foreboding, you notice that criminals on TV often match your ethnicity.  How might you feel about your potential as a student? Your intelligence? How can these experiences affect your ideas about your future? 

Now switch gears. You are a teacher, aware of the many discouraging messages, myths, and stereotypes and outright lies that bombard some of your students of color. What can you do to counteract these feelings of despair?  

There is much you can do.  

You can begin by getting to know your students, validating their backgrounds, understanding their motivations, listening to their ideas and feelings, and acknowledging them as valuable members of your school community. You can give them the tools to manage their own learning and map progress, as we explored in the first two blogs.  

Here, we discuss ways to offer counter-narratives, or alternative explanatory stories that challenge those narratives and accounts that devalue a student’s sense of worth. Counter-narratives provide a deeper perspective on history that overturns myths about race and intelligence and repairs damage done by racism and white supremacy.  

Counter-narratives are simultaneously approached in two ways: 

  1. Students are exposed to current events and history from diverse perspectives through primary sources, films, and speakers, gaining pertinent information and stories not covered in textbooks. They learn to critically analyze patterns and motivations used to maintain the status quo between them and those who enjoy white privilege. They break down myths and stereotypes, debunking erroneous information about intelligence based on outmoded theories of IQ. Students can learn about movements to oppose discrimination and oppression, and ongoing struggles for equal rights.  
  2. Educators work with individuals to break down barriers that have personally held them back. They can unmask explanatory stories students have adopted that limit their potential and supplant them with supportive ones.  

Below we address ways to incorporate counter-narratives in the formative assessment cycle. 

Infusing Counter-Narratives in Identity Safe Formative Assessment  

Pre-conditions: A Trusting Atmosphere where Students Are Exposed to Alternative Views of History and the Present 

To prepare students to be open to counter-narratives, we create a trusting environment where student voices are heard, and multiple perspectives welcomed and taught. Students learn alternate views of history and the world and understand contributions of diverse people from many backgrounds.  

Expanding our students’ understanding of ideas about intelligence reveals their potential to them. Stephen Murdoch’s book, IQ, The Smart History of a Failed Idea (2007) explains that methods for quantifying intelligence were based on erroneous beliefs that intelligence is a fixed entity. Carol Dweck demonstrated that people with a “growth mindset” who believe that intelligence isn’t fixed, can grow more confident with effort, learning from their mistakes, improving performance, and thereby increasing intelligence.  

In the example of the first type of counter-narrative, we seek to challenge inaccuracies, myths, and stereotypes from dominant narratives that do not consider the perspectives and experiences of people of color. Counternarratives that highlight another perspective can be incorporated in all subject areas, challenging mainstream views and unmasking white supremacy.  Educators need to take into account their students’ developmental levels and carefully consider how counternarratives are presented to avoid singling out students of color or overwhelming them.   Positive representations through art, literature, music, and folklore that represent the cultures of the students can also be encouraged along with experiential family stories and artifacts that enrich the curriculum. 

The second type of counternarrative promoting positive selfassessment, can be incorporated in each of the three Formative Assessment Phases.  

Phase One: Where am I going? 

During phase one, students can set goals based on high expectations when they believe that the expectations are achievable. Educators scaffold student efforts by helping them set short, medium, and long-term goals with specific milestones. Incorporating identity safe practices (see Blog 2: Identity Safe Formative Assessment Part II) will assure students that they are indeed capable, gaining confidence to take risks. 

Phase Two: Where am I now? 

As students learn to analyze their progress, they can view mistakes as learning experiences. When we model our attitudes about errors and the approach to mistakes in whole-class lessons, students will mirror them when they examine their own work. They understand that a particular experience of failure is neither a permanent state, nor does it transfer to other subjects or experiences. 

We teach Carol Dweck’s concept of “not yet,” the idea that even if they have not achieved a particular level of expertise, it doesn’t mean they won’t get there. “Not yet” works to motivate students to continue trying. They also discover that there is no shame in acknowledging when they do not understand a word or concept,and become comfortable asking for assistance.  

Finally, educators can ensure student learning is scaffolded into chunks, allowing them to progress step-by-step.  

Phase Three: Where am I going? 

In the third phase of formative assessment, students learn to assess their own progress. As Carol Dweck stated, You don’t build strong lasting confidence by saying, ‘Oh, you’re good at math. “[When you say] you’re a good math student when the student is struggling, and doesn’t feel that way, they know you’re just trying to make them feel good. But they’re not buying into that. Rather you need to help them see themselves as people who are becoming better and better.” She goes on to say that you can point out what they’ve learned while highlighting their progress and the processes that brought them to that point, such as seeking help or trying new approaches. That way, students develop the skill of analyzing what contributed to growth. They can then adjust their goals as needed.   

Author Ali Michael sees part of an educator’s job as sharing a different narrative with kids about who they are, and who they could be. We motivate by catching them in the act of excelling or giving back to the community. When we establish counter narratives, we help them reclaim their self-confidence. 


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

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

Murdoch, Stephen, (2007 )  IQ, The Smart History of a Failed Idea  

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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