Differentiated Teaching: Assessment

Apr 25, 2019

All differentiated instruction is based on informal and formal, 24–7, assessment. But how does one decide the student's level of understanding? Is knowing information about a topic enough or one has attained mastery if they can even go beyond manipulating and applying that information successfully in other situations?  Before one delves deeper into Assessment in a differentiated classroom, it is critical to have a clear cut definition of Mastery of a concept. As per Rick, mastery is defined as:

"Students have mastered content when they demonstrate a thorough understanding as evidenced by doing something substantive with the content beyond merely echoing it. Anyone can repeat information; it’s the masterful student who can break content into its component pieces, explain it and alternative perspectives regarding it cogently to others, and use it purposefully in new situations."

To cite a simple example, as a teacher which student do you feel has attained mastery of multiplication : the one who can recite multiplication tables till 12 or one who can hear or read about a situation that requires repeated addition and identifies it as a multiplication opportunity, then uses multiplication accurately to shorten the solution process ?

Once a teacher has a clear picture of what constitutes mastery of a subject and communicates that with the class, assessment of a differentiated class becomes more structured and easier.

Principles of Successful Assessment in a Differentiated Classroom

In a differentiated classroom, assessment is a coaching and nurturing tool. The emphasis is not on documenting deficiencies, but to shape instructional decisions. With the focus on assessment, the author has laid out  twelve basic steps for planning a successfully differentiated lesson:

  1. Identify the essential and enduring knowledge (understandings, questions, benchmarks, objectives, skills, standards).
  2. Identify your students with unique needs, and what they will need in order to achieve. They may need changes in content, process, product, affect, or learning environment (Tomlinson 2003). This is where you refer to any information you have in your learner profiles that may influence a student’s success with the lessons. For a description of student factors affecting instruction see the next section.
  3. Design your formative and summative assessments. Literally write them out, if possible.
  4. Design and deliver your pre-assessments based on the summative assessments and essential and enduring knowledge discussed earlier.
  5. Adjust assessments or essential understandings and objectives based on your further thinking while designing the assessments.
  6. Design the learning experiences for students based on the information gathered from pre-assessments. Don’t be afraid to adjust essential understandings or assessments based on further thinking you’ve done while planning these experiences. See the next page for a further description of this step.
  7. Run a mental tape of each step in the lesson sequence to make sure things make sense for your diverse group of students and that the lesson will run smoothly. While doing this, check the lesson(s) against criteria for successful differentiated instruction and revise as necessary. Be sure you can point to evidence in the lesson of your expertise with students of this age, with cognitive theory, and with differentiated practice. If you can’t point these out, the lesson may need revision.
  8. Review your plan with a colleague. Lesson design is very subjective, and as a result, we miss opportunities others can see through their objective perspective. At least twice a year, exchange lessons with a colleague and critique each other’s approach. It’s amazing how much we discover when we do this.
  9. Obtain and/or create materials needed for the lesson. Be completely provisioned.
  10. Conduct the lesson.
  11. Evaluate the lesson’s success with students. What evidence do you have that the lesson was successful? What worked and what didn’t, and why?
  12. Record advice for yourself on changes for when you do this lesson in future years. Also include notes in your plan book for any aspects you’ll have to change in tomorrow’s lesson in light of what happened during today’s lesson.

Types of Assessments

  • Portfolios : Portfolios are an excellent way to determine accurate grades for students in differentiated classes. With portfolios, teachers can collect and examine work over time. Portfolios can be as simple as a folder of collected works for one year or as complex as multi-year, selected and analyzed works from different areas of a student’s life. Because of portfolios’ longitudinal nature and the big picture they provide of students’ development, teachers don’t have to make as many inferences about students’ mastery based on single samplings (tests and quizzes). As a result, interpretations of students’ mastery are more valid, and subsequent decisions we make are more effective. Portfolios are a wonderful mirror for students to see their own development and take charge of their learning.
  • Rubrics : A rubric defines in writing what is expected of the student to get a particular grade on an assignment. A rubric is a great tool for teachers because it is a simple way to set up a grading criteria for assignments. Not only is this tool useful for teachers, it is helpful for students as well.  It can designed as Analytical or Holistic rubric. If you want to assess content and skills within the larger topic being addressed, go with analytic rubrics. They break tasks and concepts down for students so that they are assessed in each area. Analytical rubrics also require you to consider the relative weights (influences) of different elements. If you want to keep everything as a whole, go with holistic rubrics. Holistic rubrics take less time to use while grading, but they don’t provide as much specific feedback to students. While it is important to make students understand the rubric, it is even beneficial to involve them in  creating their own rubrics for classroom assignments. A student who can write the rubric for a math problem knows the whole process inside and out, and he/she can apply the knowledge and skills learned from the process to future assignments.
  • Self Assessment : Self and peer assessment is an excellent way for student to reflect on their own learning and set future goals.This can be achieved through assessment of projects and presentations, writing journals, learning logs, and interactive notes to list a few.

Tiering Assessments

Tiering is defined as how teachers adjust assignments and assessments according to students’ readiness levels, interests, and learner profiles.The last two, interests and learner profiles, suggest lateral adjustments, however,not the vertical adjustments expressed by the definition of tier, such as in terracing or varying levels of something. To appropriate use tiering, teachers must be clear about benchmarks  (demonstration of full performance) and adequately breakdown the skills required  to complete the assignment.

Increasing Complexity & Challenge can be accomplished by adding assignment attributes. These  attributes would include the following (among others): manipulating information rather than echoing, extending the concept to other areas, working with advanced resources, synthesizing two or more unrelated concepts or objects to create something new, or adding an unexpected element to the process or product. The removing of these attributes would reduce complexity & challenge.

Tomlinson’s Equalizer – An “equalizer” can be  utilized to appropriately examine and adjust the challenge level of assignments.  This equalizer is a comprised of the following nine continuums :  foundational  to transformational, concrete to abstract, simple to complex, single facet to  multiple facets, small leap to great leap,  more structured to more open, clearly  defined problems to fuzzy problems, less independence to more independence, and slower to quicker. Tiering efforts are aided by this concrete method of  comparing the relative complexity of assignments.

Learning Contracts – Teachers decide objectives, but provide an opportunity for negotiation between teachers and students about time for completion and demonstration of mastery. These contracts usually include  checkpoints but will always have a clear listing of student responsibilities & teacher expectations.

Learning Menus – Students are given a choice of tasks to complete  from a predetermined list of options. Example: students choose one task from the  “appetizer” section, everything in the entrée section, and enrichment activities would belong to the “dessert” section.

Tic-Tac-Toe Boards – This approach is similar to the Learning Menu. Students are given choices of tasks from a board that roughly corresponds in shape to a tic-tac-toe board (i.e. 3x3). Students will complete tasks enabling them to “win” a tic-tac-toe game. The pattern of required tasks will be chosen for their individual readiness levels.

Cubing – Students create a 3-D cube out of foam board (or similar  material) and respond to the topic of learning through each cube face’s learning  prompt. More advanced groups would have more advanced prompts (or less advanced  prompts for early readiness groups). Tiered groups could potentially share  cubes. Bloom’s taxonomy (knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis,  synthesis, evaluation) lends itself well to the cubing approach.

Summarization pyramid – Adjustment is made in the levels of the prompts for tiered groupings. Example prompts include: synonym, causes, larger categories, and misinterpretation.

Frank William’s Taxonomy of Creativity – These eight levels of  creative thinking can be divided into two sections: cognitive (fluency,  flexibility, originality, elaboration) and affective (risk-taking, complexity, curiosity, imagination). Students’ current intellectual and emotional capabilities are taken into account in order to best meet their needs when reframing learning experiences.

RAFT(S) - This stands for Role, Audience, Format, Topic (or Time). The “S” refers to “Strong Verb” or “Strong Adverb” which will determine the tone to the created piece. The teacher provides a short menu of choices for each one of these attributes of a student’s task, and the student chooses one from each column to create a unique task. Increasing (or decreasing) complexity is accomplished by adjusting one (or more) of the RAFT attributes. Early readiness groups would use combinations that are “natural” while advanced readiness groups would have menu options that would lead to more abstract combinations.

Changing the Verb - This has the potential of energizing the assessment prompt, leading to greater student motivation and task complexity. Compare these two prompts and guess which one which energize the students                                               “Explain socialism as a form of government”  OR                                                      "Argue against socialism as a way to run the government" .

One-Word Summaries - Students are asked to summarize a concept with a single word and then either defend or attack this summary. Tiering this activity would be based on available word choices or from the generation of the word on their own.

Regular discussions with teaching colleagues - For an individual topic, create one assignment or assessment that meets the standard task and one that is tiered above or below the standard. Once done, critique them with someone else in your discipline to make sure they account for all you want to teach and that they are developmentally appropriate.

Creating good test questions

Differentiated Learning requires creating good differentiated test questions. Some tips to design good tests:

  1. Use a mix of traditional and non-traditional questions. Matching, T/F, fill in the blank, Multiple Choice, define, essay and short answer with analogies, drawings, diagrams, critiquing others’, performance or even teaching the subject to others.
  2. Avoid using double/confusing negatives, and highlight key words that you are trying to emphasis, e.g. Round to two decimal places or compare and contrast the effect of. It is not completely wrong to use similar words to test for complete understand such as mass and weight or accept and except.
  3. Use real life examples and get to know your students interests to incorporate those ideas and themes into your test questions.  And no question is warranted if there is no links to the learning outcomes. If you didn’t teach then don’t test it.
  4. Other things to think about when giving/making a test are the length of the test and the length and wordiness of the questions.  You want to provide rigor not rig amorous.  Use discretion when to test, test often but not so often that all you do is testing.  Large units can be broken into two tests, for example in the history we can test; pre and post confederation or pre and post D-day.  
  5. Tests should be assessed and returned in a timely fashion.  If the feedback is given later than a week the student will have forgotten what they were thinking at that time.  Change it up and just give written feedback instead of a mark, it is noted that if a mark out of a number is given most students will never look at where they went wrong.  If you need to give a numerical mark then get the students to total the test, this allows for dialogue of how marks were given and lost in a question or how to improve on a rewrite or final.


Assessment in a differentiated classroom is highly fluid. It’s shaped to a high degree by instruction and the students involved. As in real life, good assessment should engage more than one discipline. In almost every profession that our students will one day work in, employees do more than one thing at the same time, often in complex and varying situations.We don’t do one hour of math, one hour of art, one hour of writing/reading/spelling, one hour of science, and so on. We are dexterous with what we know and can do, integrating readily. Because assessment in a differentiated classroom is so authentic to the student’s learning experience, both teachers and students can take clear action as a result of what assessment reveals. To be so integral to students’ success, differentiated assessment is formative, not saved for the end of the unit. Differentiating teachers are not coy with assessments, either; they keep everything visible so that students can hit the target. They see assessment as the pivotal instructional tool that it is.

Madhavi Agnihotri

A technologist passionate about how an effective education system can build a future ready generation.