My Views on Assessments in Critical Pedagogy

Hi! It’s February – Black History Month and Black Lives Matter at School Week starts Monday, February 3. My district kicked off this month by placing me on administrative leave for calling out acts of racism! And, fyi, we’re still waiting for the apology we demanded last month…

I am taking this break to reflect on the why of my work and how I can do it in a sustainable way that protects my mental well-being as well as my economic well-being while also not giving up on the community I love.

As such, this month’s post is a paper written for my doctoral program on my philosophy of assessment. I may have something to write about for March’s installment pertaining to my current situation, but I feel like this is a strong piece and a required shift in how we view assessments.


There are two types of assessment used in education: formative and summative. A formative assessment is generally defined as assessing students’ needs and using data collected from these assessments to guide instruction. A summative assessment is generally defined as assessing the cumulative knowledge and/or skills gained from an activity, lesson, or unit. Formative assessments are seen more as informal, such as exit tickets or assessing group discussions, while summative assessments can be very formal, like end of year standardized tests (Frey & Fisher, 2011).

The Ethnic Studies Program in Seattle Public Schools aims to create an instructional model in which summative assessments are synonymous with evaluation, which Dr. Cullen defines as an analysis of a program (Laureate Education, 2017) and formative assessments drive curriculum and instruction. The Ethnic Studies Program uses a critical pedagogy model that views learning as cyclical and ongoing, therefor requiring all assessments be formative, even those conducted at the end of an activity, lesson, or unit (Freire, 1968). While the educator may not continue with students past a semester or school year, the students are expected to continue their learning beyond individual teachers’ classrooms, and assessments should be just as student-centered as instruction.

Assessment as a Driver of Instruction

The Ethnic Studies Program calls out culturally responsive teaching and critical pedagogy as key to instruction in addition to content that is explicitly anti-racist (Castro-Gill, et al, 2018). Both instructional models are categorized by Dr. Wilson (n.d.) as “Personalist” and “Social Interaction”, which closely align with the ways in which education scholars define learner-centered instruction and/or curriculum (Cullen, Harris, & Hill, 2012). In a learner-centered model, students are assessing themselves and their peers in nearly every interaction as they drive the learning. Teachers, in the role of facilitator, are eventually freed from direct instruction in a process Frey and Fisher (2011) call “gradual release of responsibility” wherein the goal is to instruct and model tasks and then observe and formatively assess independent and collaborative learning.

Richmond, et al (2019) argue that strong learner-centered curriculum starts with a strong learner-centered syllabus. As such, the Ethnic Studies Program aims to create curriculum and instruction that is backwards planned, starting with what students will be able to do and understand when they graduate from high school instead of what teachers plan to teach. To assist in this backwards planning, the Ethnic Studies Program has created a series of content-specific frameworks with guiding questions (Seattle Public Schools, n.d.). These questions are meant to help educators backwards plan, starting with what students need to know and be able to do which then informs formative assessment. Having a strong backwards plan creates an environment in which teachers know exactly what to assess students for, even in the simplest of interactions, such as academic discussions among students and their peers. Black and William (2010) argue this model, which focuses on the interactions happening inside the “black box”, or classroom, is key to raising standards and improving outcomes for students.

Field Observations

            An exemplar of the model described above is the sixth-grade ethnic studies world history classroom of Andrew Chase at Denny International Middle School. Andrew uses four guiding questions from the Ethnic Studies Framework that inform his curriculum and instruction for this year-long course (Seattle Public Schools, n.d.):

  1. How have power dynamics changed throughout history?
  2. What role do the natural environment and cultural geography play in the development of humans?
  3. How are systems of knowledge – science and technology – influencing power and oppression?
  4. How can we critically analyze the biases created by power dynamics and leverage this to change oppressive systems today?

He uses these questions to first develop end of unit assessments which inform the lessons, activities, and informal assessments students will engage in throughout the year. As described earlier, Andrew views each assessment as formative, including end of unit assessments, which are nearly all collaborative, small-group projects. Andrew’s syllabus uses student-centered, collaborative language like “we” and “us” that centers the expected experiences and outcomes of students rather than the content Andrew will deliver.

A typical class period starts out with what Andrew calls “Social Vision”. This is an entry task that activates prior knowledge and asks students to make inferences about a picture, graphic, video, and/or quote related to the day’s lesson. Students first engage in an “elbow partner” discussion responding to prompts provided by Andrew. They then have silent time to write down their thoughts about the prompts and the discussion with their peers. Andrew then asks for students to share out their inferences and come to some consensus on what the “Social Vision” means. This is a formative assessment that helps Andrew understand what direction the day’s lesson may need to take to fill in gaps of understanding.

Students then engage in some form of collaborative reading, like a jigsaw, or “data mining”. The latter may take the form of looking up information in an atlas, a textbook, or online source, but it is almost always collaborative. During collaborative work, students are assigned roles (scribe, researcher, reader, project manager, etc) and each student is assessing how well they and their peers are performing their roles. During this time, Andrew is checking in with groups to informally assess their understanding of the task and content.

End of unit assessments are almost always collaborative, and students assess each other on effort and collaboration using Common Core Standards for speaking and listening as a guide. Since Andrew uses the four guiding questions for a year-long course, the course is cyclical and thematic in nature, which allows Andrew to use end of unit tests as formative assessments because students are expected to apply themes to future units. For example, in a unit on the Agricultural Revolution, students learn about how human settlements negatively impacted river-valley ecosystems. Students will use this knowledge in the next unit on sustainability and climate injustice, particularly pollution in the Duwamish River in the South Park neighborhood of Seattle where many students at Denny International Middle School live.


Critical pedagogy asks that students become and remain life-long learners committed to critical analysis of their environment with the purpose of eliminating injustices. To prepare students to be critical and just citizens, an effective Ethnic Studies Program must view all assessment as formative. Summative assessments that are more evaluative in nature signal to students that learning is over. This is not a message the Ethnic Studies Program wants to send to young people. A critical, cyclical student-centered model of instruction creates an environment in which all assessments are formative and learning is never summed up.





Black, P. & William, D. (2010). Inside the black box: Raising standards through classroom assessment. Phi Delta Kappan, 92(1), 81-902. Retrieved from https://eds-a-ebscohost-

Castro-Gill, T., VanDerPloeg, L., Alonzo, A., Charlton, J., Au, W. & Guzmán, G. (2018). Seattle

Public Schools anti-racist content and practice definitions. Seattle Public Schools. Retrieved from

Cullen, R., Harris, M., Hill, R. R. (2012). The learner-centered curriculum; Design and

implementation. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Freire, P. (1968). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York, NY: Bloomsbury.

Frey, L. & Fisher, D. (2011). The formative assessment action plan: Practical steps to more

successful teaching and learning. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Laureate Education, Inc. (Executive Producer). (2017). Models of assessment [Video file].

Baltimore, MD: Author.

Richmond, A. S., Morgan, R. K., Slattery, J. M., Mitchell, N. G., & Cooper, A. G. (2019).

Project syllabus: An exploratory study of learner-centered syllabi. Teaching of Psychology, 46(1), 6-15. doi: 10.1177/0098628318816129.

Seattle Public Schools. (n.d.). Ethnic Studies Frameworks. Retrieved from

Wilson, L. O. (n.d.). The second principle: Models of teaching. Retrieved from