The Assessment for Learning Project (ALP) is a grant-making and field-building initiative inviting educators, leaders, and communities to fundamentally #rethinkassessment for learning, agency, and equity. Since launching in 2015, ALP has awarded 30 project teams with grants ranging from $15,000 to $750,000, along with ongoing technical assistance and shared inquiry with peers. Grantee teams are joined by other educators, system leaders, student leaders, community organizers, and technical specialists in a dynamic network of over 1000 individuals spanning 34 states, representing all levels of the US K-12 public education system, and sharing learning with a sister network of states pursuing changes in the policy conditions around ALP local contexts .
Assessment is integral to teaching and learning. Rather than seeing “Assessment for Learning” as a means of categorizing a given tool or instrument, we view “Assessment for Learning” as an interrelated set of practices and enabling conditions with the power to: deepen students’ development of knowledge, skills, and identity; foster greater agency and ownership of learning; help educators improve instruction; and create more equitable classrooms, schools, and systems.
From our very origins, ALP has aimed to “walk the talk” of assessment for learning, for our learning community members and the initiative itself. Every grantee team creates a learning plan structured around lines of inquiry and milestones for reflection. In lieu of interim and final reports, teams make presentations of learning to authentic audiences to share insights, resources, and stories of impact. Similarly, the ALP leadership team engages the learning community in ongoing feedback, course-correction, and presentations of initiative-wide learning. We collaborate virtually throughout the year via working groups and other learning experiences. We meet in person via periodic learning excursions and every spring at an annual convening. Modeled as a learning exhibition for the field, our spring convening transitioned into the open-invitation Assessment for Learning Conference in 2020 and continued as a virtual event in 2021. We are excited to gather in person again in a special invitation-only experience in February 2023!
As documented in this Foundation Review article, our learning orientation flips the script on many features of traditional change efforts by incentivizing course-correction, “learning out loud,” and peer-to-peer capacity building. It also strengthens the collective knowledge and shared sense of purpose for the learning community, demonstrating a value to individual members in ways that are no longer tied to being the recipient of large grant dollars. Learning community members find abundance in collaboration rather than seeing themselves in competition with one another for scarce resources. Lastly, ALP’s learning orientation creates space for members of the community to step into leadership roles: co-creating field-facing assets, designing and facilitating learning experiences, and contributing to the strategic vision (and revisioning) of how and why and what we learn together.
In Hawaiian culture, the practice of stepping into reciprocal responsibility with one’s community is called kuleana. It’s not something that can be required by an external authority, but instead comes from an internal sense of belonging, mutuality, duty, and accountability. When the team from the Office of Hawaiian Education presented what they learned from their ALP-funded facilitation of 6 communities of practice for the Nā Hopena A‘o outcomes framework, they named increasing kuleana as one of their primary indicators of impact. Kau’i Sang, Director of the Office of Hawaiian Education, reflected that she observes increasing kuleana within the ALP learning community over time as one of the strongest indicators that this is the right work to do, together.
Established as a joint investment by The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation with continued investment from Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, ALP is led by the Center for Innovation in Education (C!E). Envision Learning Partners (ELP) - a “lead learner” within the ALP community and frequent collaborator in design and facilitation - recently stepped into a new role as core partner on the ALP leadership team after NGLC sunset its partner role in 2021. Our evolving partnership of complementary organizations is intentionally designed to bring multiple perspectives and skill sets to the strategic leadership and day-to-day management of the initiative.
As we step into this next phase of ALP, we draw on the lessons from our past: We seek to share and grow kuleana as a community; hold a learning orientation as a core value; “walk the talk” to pattern the change we hope to see in the broader field; open channels for presentations of learning to authentic audiences; co-create field-facing resources out of shared learning experiences; leverage microgrants for learning and other small investments to enable peer-to-peer collaboration and capacity building; and convene the field for an annual learning exhibition.
Yet we also draw on the critical lessons of the past several years: the effects of COVID-19 and recovery efforts; the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and an overdue reckoning with racial injustice; and the assault on the United States Capitol and our country’s fractured and fragile practice of democracy. The driving question of the 2021 Assessment for Learning Conference was this: “How will Assessment for Learning lead the way through the crises of the moment to a more just and student-centered future of public education?” We are not just asking about the potential roles of assessment in schools this fall and beyond, but rather how we as the Assessment for Learning community, network, and movement will come together and learn together to shape change.
We aim to shape change by changing how we organize ourselves so that our learning has a greater impact on the field. First, we are democratizing our strategic decision-making and sensemaking with the ALP community as an intentional disruption to the hierarchical power structures common to education and philanthropy. Second, we are deepening our inquiry into assessment’s relationship with social justice, anti-racism, and the local wisdom of communities. Third, we are working to codify the purposes, practices, and conditions of assessment for learning to bring cohesion to our community’s work and to invite others to locate themselves within this movement. Fourth, we are prioritizing our resources to invest in the diversity of our community through meaningful invitations to more BIPOC leaders, the disability community, high poverty districts, and English Language learners. Fifth, we are taking more radical strides to center student voices. Lastly, we are building upon the connection this community has with the Interstate Learning Community so that we can test and model new modes of operating with the people positioned to bring reciprocal dispositions and practices into systems leadership and policy.
The foundation and center of gravity of ALP is its learning agenda, a set of core questions to galvanize our learning community – and the field – around the multifaceted challenge to rethink assessment:
How can assessment support a broader definition of student success?
What assessment practices most effectively empower students to own their learning?
How can educators grow their skills and use assessment for learning to enhance instruction?
How does assessment for learning inform broader issues of accountability, policy, and system design?
How can we pursue equity through assessment for learning?
What we’ve learned is that the last question is core to all others. We started from the belief that assessment is never simply a neutral observer of inequity; it either upholds or disrupts patterns of privilege, exclusion, and bias. We are learning that innovations in assessment alone - without cultural humility, critical consciousness, and power analyses - will only produce new data about the same old outcomes. We’ve reflected on the ways that assessment can embody characteristics of white supremacy culture - objectivity, perfectionism, individualism, and paternalism - and can be reimagined as a liberatory practice of love, belonging, and growth. We’ve learned that when teachers calibrate their assessment of student work together, they can also interrogate unconscious bias together. We’ve learned that conventional feedback may harm students of marginalized identities, and how formative practices can instead be used to attend to the identity safety of a classroom. We’ve learned that student agency is not marked by academic success but instead the extent to which students see themselves as agents of change for their community. We’ve learned that when young people and their families are invited to co-create with educators, different problems are identified and different responses emerge. We’ve learned that stories matter. Place matters. Local wisdom matters. We’ve learned so much, and we’ve got so much left to learn.
This kind of vulnerable inquiry - at times a collective reckoning - requires intentional design and stewardship of community: be it a classroom, school, or national network of assessment nerds. How we work is The Work, and we need to learn more about that. We recently developed a set of principles of practice and evaluation framework to help us reflect on the impact of ALP as an equity-seeking learning community.
All of this points to the question: "To what end?" The unfulfilled promises of NCLB and testing backlash is felt even more strongly in the COVID world, and it's very likely that a significant disruption is coming. The question is, what effect will this disruption have? Will it continue in the white-dominant measurement paradigm of NCLB & ESSA? Will it continue to prioritize top-down accountability over bottom-up? Will it continue to be compliance-driven rather than learning-oriented? We (obviously) don't know the answer, nor would we be arrogant enough to say that we will alone shape it. But we can invite the people who will shape it to come together, invest in their relationships, model a learning orientation, and amplify the genius that is marginalized by the dominant paradigm and current distribution of power. This is our contribution, and we've shown that we're uniquely good at it (with much left to learn).