Category Archives: Assessment

Culturally Responsive Instruction and Assessment

At their heart, Culturally Responsive Practices (CRP) are about teaching the way students learn. It is an unfortunate truth of being human that we are biased by our own experiences. As Mahzarin Banaji, a professor of social ethics at Harvard University says,

“The quickest way to define what implicit bias is [is] to say it is the thumbprint of the culture on your brain.”

For educators, this means our internalized notions of what good teaching looks like emerge from our own experience.

Our task then is to think outside of our own ways of knowing, being, and learning in order to meet the needs of our students and build on their cultural ways of knowing, being, and learning.

Hold up… let’s make sure we are on the same page. What do we mean by other ways of knowing, being, and learning? Jamila Lyiscott provides a powerful explanation (video).

Now let’s explore some of the ways we can expand our methods so that all students can exercise and grow their genius.

Culturally Responsive Instruction and Assessment

We are going to use four themes from the research literature on Culturally Responsive Pedagogies to look more closely at instruction and assessment:

  1. Be transparent and intentional about culture.
  2. Take an appreciative stance.
  3. Provide mirrors and windows.
  4. Educate about and for social justice.

Each theme will allow us to tease out culturally responsive practices and examples for consideration as you plan instruction and assessment.

1. Be transparent and intentional about culture

In her seminal book The Dreamkeepers, Gloria Ladson Billings noted, “All instruction is culturally responsive. The question is: to which culture is it currently oriented?”

Unless teachers are intentional, classrooms are likely to parallel the dominant culture. As institutions, schools have embedded and unquestioned structures (the “grammar of schooling”) that traditionally have not centered the needs and assets of students, especially students from historically marginalized populations.

Since most teachers experienced some form of traditional schooling, culturally responsive teachers often seek to look beyond their own experience. They constantly ask themselves “Whose ways of knowing am I centering? How might I incorporate different ways of knowing?”

It is a safe assumption that every classroom represents a range of learner types and dispositions at any given moment. And most youth cultures value novelty. The Education Alliance at Brown University’s site on culturally responsive teaching notes that “instruction is culturally mediated when it incorporates and integrates diverse ways of knowing, understanding, and representing information.”

Thus a hallmark of culturally responsive classrooms is variation in instructional format – independent work, small group learning, direct instruction, self-paced activities, student-directed workshops, whole group discussion, etc. These formats are not used willy-nilly, though. They are carefully chosen for purpose and embedded in routines. A good example is Team Quest at Crossett Brook Middle School in Duxbury, Vermont, who revamped their schedule to increase student voice and choice. The two-person team transformed their approach based on the perceived needs and input of their learners.

Cultural validity in assessment

Assessment validity refers to accuracy. Just like instruction, if the assessment process is a mismatch for a student’s culture, it’s not going to accurately measure what students know and can do.

Trumbull & Nelson-Barber explain it this way in their article The Ongoing Quest for Culturally-Responsive Assessment for Indigenous Students in the U.S.:

“Achieving cultural validity in assessment means, first, recognizing that tests and assessments are cultural artifacts and that the ways in which students respond to them are affected by their cultural knowledge and experiences. It means accounting for students’ cultural and linguistic backgrounds, epistemologies, educational experiences, communication styles, and socioeconomic situations in the processes of assessment development and implementation” (para 12).

The article includes an excellent list of research-based questions that teachers can ask themselves at each phase of the assessment process. The overarching idea here is intentionality. Teachers must keep culture at the forefront of their instruction and assessment practices. Otherwise they will default to their own acculturation and biases.

culturally responsive instruction and assessment
Image by Elise Trumbull & Sharon Nelson-Barber, “The Ongoing Quest for Culturally-Responsive Assessment for Indigenous Students in the U.S.”. Licensed via Creative Commons 4.0 (International-Attribution).

2. Take an appreciative stance

“You are good enough. I appreciate you and care for you unconditionally.” A teacher who carries and lives this sentiment embodies culturally responsive practices. These educators are what Lisa Delpit calls “warm demanders,” and they inspire young people to reach their full potential.

In an interview titled “Antiracist grading starts with you,” Cornelius Minor points to three harmful beliefs (what he calls “pernicious ideologies”) in assessment that get in the way of appreciating students.

  1. Should know – expectations and assumptions about what students should know and be able to do based on grade level
  2. Transactional gratitude – I’ll teach you as long as you are thankful for it
  3. Deservedness – intertwining the grading of behavior and academic skills

These ideologies are huge barriers to appreciating where students are and focusing on how to help them grow. Growth-oriented systems such as proficiency-based education (PBE) can help teachers move away from these problematic ideologies. The TIIE toolkit on PBE, for example, includes this core belief: “The goal of education is not to sort and rank learners, rather to help ALL learners grow towards their potential.”

By being appreciative we build student agency. As put in the report Equity and Assessment: Moving Toward Culturally Relevant Assessment, “Our assessments approaches— how we assess and the process of assessment itself—should align with the students we have, empowering them with narratives to share and document their learning journey.”

Culturally responsive instruction and assessment uses assessments that let students author their own narratives, such as portfolios, personalized learning plans, and student led conferences. Students can use multimedia tools to tell the story of their growth from their own perspective. The appreciative stance firmly takes hold when students are supported in appreciating their own learning.

3. Provide mirrors and windows

Rudine Sims Bishop developed the metaphor of mirrors, windows and sliding glass doors to help us understand the importance of diverse representation in literature. This metaphor can also guide us to more culturally responsive pedagogy. It can remind us to make certain that students see their own ways of knowing, being, and learning mirrored in our classroom.

If our instructional practices are only mirrors of the way we learn best they are most certainly not culturally responsive. If, on the other hand, they are intentionally varied, they provide mirrors for all kinds of learners to see their strengths.

Look at the view from the windows in your classroom

As educators we can position ourselves such that our work with students allows us to learn from the windows they provide for us, thus better informing our instructional practices.

Perhaps the most straightforward way for teachers to benefit from student perspectives is to ask them directly. Conferencing allows feedback from students about what is working and what could improve along with direction from teachers about next steps for students. CRP teachers survey their classrooms regularly to check in about the extent to which students feel they belong or how the teacher’s instruction affirms cultural identity (see, for example, the Copilot-Elevate measures).  Teachers may also employ more targeted data gathering through action research.

Other pedagogical approaches, like formative assessment and negotiated curriculum , provide the opportunity to learn more about our students. They provide windows into the cognitive processes of our learners, allowing us to inform our instruction.

Not all windows are transparent

While we definitely want to get to know our students well, we don’t need to know everything about them in order to plan instruction. It is a both/and. Yes, our students provide us with windows into their world, which helps us make our instruction culturally responsive. AND we don’t need to know everything about their lives (or deserve to) in order to plan instruction that is relevant and meaningful to them.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is an approach to designing instruction that is accessible and engaging for all learners. It specifically asks educators to identify and remove barriers to learning. This UDL tool (.pdf) for example, pairs barriers with instructional strategies to engage all learners.

Another pedagogical approach that should be adopted outright is trauma-informed practice.

It is safe to assume, no matter where you teach, that some of your students will have experienced trauma. This doesn’t mean you need to know the specific traumas young people have suffered. You should plan for trauma no matter what.

Alex Shevrin Venet, in her book Equity-Centered Trauma-Informed Education, explains an approach to designing instruction that is culturally responsive and trauma-informed. As she designs a unit she prioritizes predictability, flexibility, empowerment, and connection. This approach, it should be noted, works within the larger context of a trauma-informed classroom and school.

4. Educate about and for social justice

Culturally responsive instruction and assessment engages students in what Gholdy Muhammad calls criticality:

“criticality helps students to name, question, interrogate, understand and disrupt hurt, pain and harm within the world.”

Culturally responsive teachers seek to to “create a better humanity for all” according to Muhammad. They engage students in the work of actively dismantling oppressive systems.

One instructional approach that engages students in this work is critical-problem based learning (Critical-PBL), as explored by Caires-Hurley, Jimenez-Silva, and Harrington.

Critical-PBL uses four pillars to move students toward action for a more socially just world:
  1. Standards that are critical: specifically the Social Justice Standards from Learning for Justice
  2. Problems that are critical: meaningful problems related to justice
  3. Content that is critical: content related to the experiences of minoritized and marginalized groups
  4. Discourse that is critical: includes a variety of voices and moves beyond “academic language”
The four pillars of Critical Problem-Based Learning: Critical Standards, Critical Problems, Critical Content, and Critical Discourse. For culturally responsive instruction and assessment
The four pillars of Critical-Problem Based Learning. Image by Caires-Hurley, Jimenez-Silva, and Harrington, “Toward a Critical-PBL: Centering a Critical Consciousness in the Middle Grades”. Licensed via Creative Commons 4.0 (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0).

This approach engages learners in the work of social justice while simultaneously engaging them in academic content and skills. The model units at the end of the article provide examples of these four pillars at work.

Some Vermont educators have been engaging their students in another form of PBL: project-based learning with a critical lens.

For example, Edmund’s Middle School teacher Jeremy DeMink engages learners in addressing social inequities through Hands-Joined Learning. Both PBL and C-PBL provide instructional trajectories that lead students to informed action that disrupts inequity.

Remember that what makes it culturally responsive isn’t just criticality, but also the connection to young people’s lives.  As Alex Shevrin Venet says,

“Students’ lives are full of rich areas for exploration and real problems to solve. We don’t need to give students fake work that is meaningless in the context of their lives.”

Performance assessments for social justice

A well-designed performance task provides an opportunity for students to practice skills, demonstrate critical understandings, and center their lived experience. In the article Keeping Students at the Center with Culturally Relevant Performance Assessment, researcher Maya Kaul explains outlines two critical components:

  • “Put relationships at the center and provide the space for students to share their stories.”
  • “Use students’ personal experiences to drive civic and community engagement.”

For example, she describes districts in California where students graduate based on assembling portfolios. This allows students to center their accomplishments. She also points to another model, where the Hawaiian Focused Charter School network has developed a series of capstone projects that each incorporate skills such as research papers and oral presentations deployed to make social impact. Ultimately,

“Such assessments provide a powerful vehicle for understanding students’ cultural identities, not as tangential to their learning, but as essential to their education and critical to their becoming valued contributors who are poised to serve their schools and communities. Historical trauma is reclaimed as a platform to empower individuals as social and political change agents, transforming and restoring the health and well-being to communities.”

School systems should measure what matters. To produce genuinely culturally responsive instruction and assessment, we must intentionally design assessments about and for social justice.

In search of wholeness

Equity is a process, an approach, and a lens for viewing the world and our work as educators. It is about more than equal outcomes. The ultimate goal is that every person is valued as their whole human selves in all spaces.

This blog series on Culturally Responsive Practices has focused on educational spaces. To properly apply CRP, we need all four of the themes. Many of the aspects seem like “good teaching.” But if we leave out teaching about and for social justice, for example, we won’t have the transformative impact that we need.

Similarly, although it’s helpful in some ways to separately consider the learning environment, curriculum, and pedagogy, we must attend to the whole system. Superstar teachers and isolated classrooms aren’t going to bring the transformation we need, either. The practices are powerful but can only be sustained and reach their true potential with systemic support. The inequities and oppression baked into our systems, through aspects that directly contradict CRP like standardized testing and tracking as well as more nuanced obstacles such as compliance culture, must be disrupted and dismantled.

To all the CRP educators whose work provided ideas and examples for this series, we thank you. For educators who are at an earlier stage of your efforts to become culturally responsive, we salute you. Your students deserve it.

This post is the last in a four-part series. In part one we identified four aspects of cultural responsiveness: cultural transparency, an appreciative lens, windows and mirrors, and a focus on social justice. We used these four aspects to explore culturally responsive learning environments in part two . In part three we took a look at culturally responsive curriculum through the lens of the four aspects. The series is co-authored by Jeanie Phillips and Life LeGeros.

Taking stock of grading & reporting

In spring 2020, during statewide “emergency remote learning” due to the pandemic, many districts and schools changed their approach to grading and reporting.

The shift was toward a “do no harm” model. In a moment when everybody was reeling from ongoing collective trauma and uncertainty, this made a lot of sense from a purely human standpoint. And with so much variation in student access to technology and other resources, evaluations of performance were bound to be hugely inequitable.

The report cards that families received often looked quite different than in the past. In many cases there were no letter or number grades. Often there were narrative comments and feedback that was new or more detailed than before. And the emphasis was likely to be on student assets, growth, and encouragement.

So how about now? Are these shifts still in place or are we snapping back to pre-pandemic practices? The answer is a bit of both.

Why should grading change?

When some schools let go of letter and number grades last spring, there was an understanding that these seemingly precise measures were crude representations of learning. In the midst of collective trauma, and with so many variables at play, it seemed unnecessarily reductionist to quantitatively summarize students’ experiences.

Yet doesn’t this logic extend beyond the pandemic? Evaluating a student with a number pulls them into a paradigm of comparison. And comparison begets competition. Winners and losers, rather than growers and learners.

In a recent article, Tony Winger and Kimberly Race trace the costs of grading, which include teachers acting as gatekeepers for success, the proliferation of fixed mindsets, and the toll it takes on students’ wellbeing. They cite research showing grades as the biggest factor, by far, in students’ stress levels.

We don’t want to produce undue anxiety. But perhaps this stress is justified because it motivates students to learn? Unfortunately the extrinsic motivation of grades is not a solid motivator for the long term.

Fundamentally, though, grading and reporting reflect our beliefs about the purpose of schooling. As Winger and Race ask: “Do we wish to serve as gatekeepers, sorting and ranking students as they compete for status and resources? Or do we wish to help all students grow to be healthy and happy humans, self-sufficient and creative workers, collaborative problem solvers, and engaged citizens?”

For those pushing school systems to become more equitable and student centered, the choice is clear. Grades gotta go.

Why are grades sticking around?

Based on interviews with several districts for this blog post, it appears that report cards in Vermont this fall will look very similar to how they appeared before the pandemic.

There seemed to be a near consensus among instructional leaders that the long term vision was to ditch grades and focus entirely on narrative feedback. Especially at the elementary and middle levels.

And there was unanimous agreement that the main barrier for going grade-less was culture. The culture of our society in general and of our schools in particular. Families simply aren’t ready for this shift. Especially certain privileged families that want to maintain their competitive advantage.

Andrew Jones is the Curriculum Director of Mill River Schools and President of the Vermont Curriculum Leaders Association. He visited several schools in Maine near the end of 2019 as a follow up to visits he had done during his Rowland Fellowship five years prior. He wanted to understand why Maine had reversed course legislatively on Standards Based Grading.

“For schools where there was a big pushback on proficiencies, we found that letter grades were the thing that broke it. Some schools changed practices and did fine, but schools that changed the outside facing stuff, that’s what sank it. I talked to somebody who sat in every legislative hearing, and it was all about letter grades, transcripts, and colleges.” 

Logistics too

The transition from high school to college is the ultimate sticking point. There is a logistical dilemma of how to transfer information so that colleges can run an admissions process. There are some models emerging but they are not yet proven or widespread.

In her article A Perfect World is One with No Grades, Susan Brookhart noted that “administrative functions that come with doing education at scale” may require some level of sorting and ranking. Even a strong proponent of going gradeless like Brookhart acknowledged that doing so at a systems level may be a bridge too far at the moment.

Some promising shifts

There may not be dramatic changes to report cards this year. But instructional leaders around the state are adamant that proficiency based learning practices have accelerated. Here are a few areas that jumped out across several interviews:

Narrative reporting

Grades in the form of letters or numbers are still present. But the emphasis on descriptive narratives from the spring has carry over benefits.

In Two Rivers Supervisory Union, teachers engaged in the “GPS model of feedback,” so called by the former Curriculum Director Michael Eppolito. “What’s your goal? Where are you now? And what’s your next step?” Teachers wrote a Student Growth Report for progress reports in the spring and at the end of the year. This practice allowed them to “change their practice and move toward a more proficiency based mindset,” according to Michael.

grading practices

Mike Moriarty, Curriculum Director of Orleans Central Supervisory Union (OCSU), similarly cited the benefits of teachers experiencing a full cycle of purely narrative reporting. Although OCSU will be bringing back their 1-4 scale on performance indicators for this year, they are keeping the narratives. “We received a lot of positive feedback in the spring about our reporting and about overall communication with families. We are going to build on that this year.”

Guaranteed and viable curriculum

Many districts reduced the amount of content that teachers are being asked to cover.

As described by Jal Mehta, Harvard professor and co-author of a prominent paper on creative solutions to schooling during the pandemic, “The key idea is to just focus on the essential knowledge and skills that kids need to learn in a given year, and then let go of some of the rest… Focusing on essentials allows opportunities for teachers to go deeper, create space to form relationships, build communities, support social emotional learning, extracurriculars, and all the other things that are going to be critical in this upcoming year.”

Andrew Jones noted that “it is absolutely crucial that we get to a guaranteed and viable curriculum. That we set a limited number of learning targets that we can realistically teach and assess in a school year.” Emily Rinkema, instructional coach at Champlain Valley Union High School, pointed to this as a major shift: “all courses have reduced the number of learning targets… Last year, full credit courses had between 8-12 learning targets; this year, they have between 4-6 learning targets.”

Fewer learning targets = more depth. And that’s a good thing.

Beyond content knowledge

Transferable Skills have been part of the plan for implementing proficiencies since the passage of Act 77 in 2013. Reducing the amount of content that needs to be covered opens up time and energy to incorporate Transferable Skills meaningfully.

In addition to Transferable Skills, Emily Rinkema explained how the pandemic brought socio-emotional learning (SEL) to the fore. “Teachers are so much more focused on SEL and have been willing and eager to let go of some of the things they worried about in the past. For example, there was a lot of talk last year pre-pandemic about how we can ‘grade’ executive functioning. And now, they are more interested in how to support executive functioning skills.”

Orleans Southwest Supervisory Union (OSSU) is putting SEL at the center of professional learning this school year. Superintendent Adam Rosenberg noted that, “We worked hard to lay the SEL foundation at the beginning of the school year with the understanding that it’s not just for two weeks and then move on, but that these strategies will become habits of practice.” 

Student-centered instructional models

Teachers moved mountains in the spring to transform instruction at the drop of a hat. Instructional leaders are hoping to build on some of the successes that emerged in those extremely challenging circumstances.

Mill River Schools has started the year fully remote. Curriculum Director Andrew Jones has asked teachers to organize instruction using flexible learning modules. These are one week cycles that end in a “formal formative assessment” which guides remediation and enrichment. Modules are developed using a common template to make things easier to follow for students and families. The focus is on feedback and student growth, which Andrew expects will continue with face-to-face learning.

grading practices

In OSSU, although most students opted into face-to-face learning, Superintendent Adam Rosenberg asked teachers to “teach all students through the lens of remote learning.” The district had been working on “cultivating learner agency through reflective practice” for some time, but serving students remotely has strengthened the rationale for putting student self-direction and agency at the center. The district’s recently developed Learner Agency Teacher Rubric is being used for reflection and collective implementation in a way that is beyond where the conversation likely would have been otherwise.


While grading and reporting may not look hugely different than a year ago, there seems to be movement in the right direction with some acceleration in key areas. It is worth noting that many often cited “best practices” are already fairly widespread practices in Vermont. It is common to find learning scales, opportunities for retaking assessments, and separate evaluation of Work Habits from academics.

In a recent article Tom Schimmer emphasized the incremental nature of changes in these areas: “Grading reform doesn’t happen overnight; we aren’t simply going to snap out of habitual practices… Short-term wins can add up to a seismic shift in grading and reporting.”

Andrew Jones pointed to eight years of implementation as a threshold where “the real work can begin.” From conversations with schools in Maine, Washington, and Oregon, he consistently heard that it took about that long for communities to get past active resistance to the transformations inherent in authentic proficiency based learning.

By that measure, most Vermont districts have a few years of this first phase of implementation. If we keep moving steadily ahead, hopefully the culture of schooling will reach a point where equitable gradeless feedback rich practices are not only accepted, but expected.

How do you center descriptive feedback rather than grades?

How to change assessment & grading practices

…in a middle level math classroom

Deirdre Beaupre, a 7th grade math teacher at Lamoille Union Middle School took a deep dive into proficiency work. And she invited her students to join her along the journey. Deirdre participated in Learning Lab VT last year to explore how best to change her practice in a proficiency-based and personalized learning environment. How to change assessment and grading practices?

Continue reading How to change assessment & grading practices

How to use data to inform progress

Involve learners with actionable data

Wondering how to use data to inform progress for users in proficiency-based education? Assessment provides both learners and educators with data. One of CAST’s Top Ten Universal Design for Learning Tips for Assessment  is involving learners in their learning progress through assessment data:

“Communicate with learners about their progress towards the intended learning goals through formative assessment data, mastery-oriented feedback, and providing guidance for possible adjustments or new strategies that may support the intended skill. This allows learners to become active advocates and take ownership their learning.”

These questions provide an effective guide for educators:

  • Have I offered timely, goal-related feedback on the assessment?
  • Have I offered learners the opportunity to assess individual learning progress and process (for example, through regular check-ins)?
  • What about sharing options, strategies, and background knowledge needed to build the necessary skills and expertise for achieving the targeted learning goals?

How can we involve students in formative assessment so they can be empowered to take next steps?

Technology allows us to build assessment opportunities with our students. And those opportunities generate data. Students can then make informed decisions about how to move forward. Let’s look at some ways technology can help us answer the CAST questions.

Have I offered timely, goal-related feedback on the assessment?

Consider Google Forms. A form can become a self-grading quiz providing instant feedback that allows for review, reflection, and retakes.

My colleague Scott Thompson walks you through how to set up a Google Form quiz so students get both immediate feedback and resources to learn from on each answer they select.

Have I offered learners the opportunity to assess individual learning progress and process (for example, through regular check-ins)?

Padlet is a versatile tool for assessment purposes, especially when learners use the KWL template  (Know, Want to Know, Learn) to track their growth. Ask students to create a Padlet during a project or unit. Build in routine times for them to update it as a means of tracking progress.


Check out this how-to create a KWL chart video to create your own.

And, Common Sense Media provides some sound advice about how to make formative assessment more student centered.  “To unlock formative assessment’s full potential, go beyond the bar chart and get students to reflect on their own progress, areas for growth, and next steps. In the end, it’s not the quiz that counts but the thinking that happens after.”


Have I shared options, strategies, and background knowledge needed to build the necessary skills and expertise for achieving the targeted learning goals?

I’ve written about one of my favorite edtech tools Nearpod in the past. Nearpod invites learners into active participation with content. The power of this tool lies in the ability to easily include formative check-in activities in content delivery directly. And, the results are easily shared with students – data that then the class can act on. 

Want another example in practice? Consider using Nearpod to introduce peer instruction as a collaborative learning strategy so students can receive immediate feedback on developing concepts.  Interested in more?  Pedagogue Padawan offers other similar technology tools for peer instruction and peer critique . He shares his search for tools that allow sharing student responses with all students in the class.

Consider where you are on the continuum

The folks over at Ed Elements share a helpful continuum on how teachers can move toward adopting effective formative assessment and data-driven decision practices:

  • Getting Started: “Teacher uses formative assessments to check for student understanding”
  • Going Deeper: “Teacher shares data with students on a periodic basis; students review their data individually.”
  • All In: “Teacher uses data to provide immediate feedback to students; teacher and students consistently review data together to identify needs and teacher adjusts instruction accordingly.’

Teachers can harness the power of technology to generate easily shared data to help all learners grow. Want to know more? Visit our Formative Assessment Toolkit. And check out these 75 Digital Tools and Apps Teachers Can Use to Support Formative Assessment in the Classroom

4 ways to begin using scales for assessment

Getting started assessing proficiency

proficiency-based teaching and learning in VermontSchool systems in Vermont and elsewhere are in the midst of a shift to proficiency-based learning. At the early stages, this transformation can feel overwhelming even for educators, even if they’re excited by the idea.

Where to start?

Start with scales for assessment.

Continue reading 4 ways to begin using scales for assessment