George Lucas Educational Foundation

Schools That Work | Practice

Forest Lake Elementary School

Grades K-5 | Columbia, SC

Use Formative Assessment to Differentiate Instruction

Educators use frequent formative assessments to determine the needs of each student at Forest Lake Elementary School, and then leverage technology to tap into their learning styles. 

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How Differentiated Instruction and Formative Assessment Work at Forest Lake Elementary (Transcript)

Teacher 1: A fraction with the same number on the top and bottom is a unit fraction.

Narrator: At Forest Lake Elementary, students are assessed early and often.

Teacher 1: Two nights plus three nights plus one night.

Narrator: Some of the tests are fun, and most of them employ the latest technology.

Teacher 1: Would someone like to share what they put?

Student 1: I put A because I added one plus two plus three.

Narrator: The goal is to find out where each student is and then devise an individual learning strategy that will help them get to the next level.

Teacher 2: Good. Get that in there.

Kappy Cannon: I don’t think there's a school in the world where you have a regular classroom where everyone is exactly the same. I think many, many years ago, students who were in teacher education programs learned how to kinda teach down the middle and do a little here and a little there. Well, we know that that's not right for children, and there's no such thing as a regular classroom. Our school is a microcosm of the world, so we work very hard to make sure that we know where children are. We don't take time to teach things that they already know. We try to go where they are and take them as far as we can.

Student 2: And measure the different level?

Teacher 3: Oh, we learned something a little bit different. The wor--

Tamika Lowe: At the beginning of the year, we do a variety of assessments. We have our MAT testing, which is a computerized assessment, and it gives us feedback as far as different literary strengths and mathematical strengths. And it breaks it down for each child to let us know what range they're in and how we can better group them, or how we could better teach them within those groups.

Student 3: I decide I want to be a police officer the two officers came to our school. They brought a police dog that--

Tamika Rowe: We also have Palm Pilots where we sit one on one with the child and we assess their reading abilities. And so you really get a very good educational profile of that student based on all of this data.

Student 3: They go whenever there is a problem, and they try to help--

Tamika Rowe: A lot of times, I'll just pull out my information that I have on each student and I'll say, "Okay, how can I group them to better serve them for this particular skill?" So the groups are fluid and it's all based on how we can meet educational needs.

Student 4: A person who's advanced to detect a crime. Detective.

Everybody: Detective.

Tamika Rowe: We have a group at the smart board. What they're doing now is, they're working on their vocabulary. There's also spelling practice on there, and I also include skills practice.

Student 5: Who's on this computer?

Tamika Rowe: Here at the tech zone, they're having a blackboard discussion. We've been studying the genre of fantasy and I was able to look at those that were stronger in literary text and have them actually convert a non fiction text into a fantasy text, by changing the different elements. Those that were a little weaker, I actually had them come in and comment on the edits.

Kevin Durden: Then that's when you're ready to actually start filming, okay?

Narrator: In his fourth grade classroom, a one to one computer student ratio helps Kevin Durden individualize the study of math, science, language arts and social studies.

Student 6: Martha Washington. There she is.

Kevin Durden: We use a model for teaching called IPAC, which is individualized, personalized, authentic and collaborative learning. It's personalized, in that everybody's showing their learning in a way that is comfortable to them. They're learning the subject matter that we assign, but they're expressing it in different ways.

Student 7: I'm creating a battle on the game called Medieval Two and we have to research what kind of people they had there and like the terrain of the land and stuff. Like when I--

Kevin Durden: It's authentic in that at the end of the projects, they'll be sharing them with their classmates. And it's collaborative in that the students that are working on similar projects will help each other when they learn how to use new technology tools or new software. Or alternatively, for example, for the students that are doing the skits, they're actually working collaboratively right now in order to create scripts.

Student 8: Yes, please. What a lovely home. I hope you don't mind, but I brought my daughter, Abigail. I brought my daughter--

Kevin Durden: We're able to use a variety of different software in order for students to present their learning. For example, this young gentleman here used software called Comic Life. And so he's got his picture of Australia there and he's got a bearded dragon emerging from an egg, so that he can talk about that part of the reptile life cycle. And he says that the bearded dragon is an herbivore, and that is something that I would not have gotten out of him if I'd asked him to do three paragraph essay. He'd have sat there, and he'd have spun around in the chair and he'd have tapped his pencil and he'd have balled up several pieces of paper before I got anything out of him. But as it is, with Comic Life, he's dragging and dropping the photos in there and then he's only gonna write his little thought bubbles. And so the graphic scaffold his ability to use the language.

Sandra Weston: Gavin and Andy, I'm gonna let you start at the little tech zone right over here, okay?

Narrator: During the research phase of a project, students are placed at various stations in the media center to best accommodate their individual learning styles.

Sandra Weston: Don't forget to look in the reference books, along with the--

We have three stations set up, because this will hit a variety of learning styles for all the students that we teach.

Teacher 4: Do you wanna use the pointer and make it go up a little bit more?

Sandra Weston: I'm constantly observing the students. And of course, we do occasionally give paper and pencil test as well, but so much of our assessment is done through observation or through checklist, anecdotal records, journaling in the computer, keeping records on each student. And we know which learning style that each student has and we know how they would learn best.

Q: Isn't it a lot of work on your part?

Sandra Weston: Oh, of course, it's a lot of work, but that's what we're here for. We want to help each and every student that we teach and we feel like we're just making a huge difference in each child's life.

Student 9: -- there shouldn't be a comma right there, but there should be a comma.

Teacher 5: Riley, air high five. Awesome. Let's keep going, friends.

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Video Credits

Produced, Written and Directed by

  • Ken Ellis


  • Karen Sutherland

Associate Producer

  • Doug Keely

Camera Crew

  • Michael Epstein
  • Perry Goodfriend

Video Programming Producer

  • Amy Erin Borovoy


  • Michael Pritchard

Original Music

  • Ed Bogas

Support for Edutopia's Schools That Work series is provided, in part, by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation.


Personalized Instruction and Regular Use of Assessment

Forest Lake Elementary School (FLES) uses technology to differentiate student learning by initially assessing students with a program called MAP on English and math skills.  They use Palm Pilots to frequently measure progress in reading fluency.  Teachers use immediate response clickers to measure individual student progress in real-time.  FLES has classrooms that hum with energy as the young students independently tap out blog posts, operate interactive whiteboards, and take part in other tech-enabled lessons at various learning stations in each classroom. 

Teachers use a differentiation strategy called IPAC (Individualized Personalized Authentic and Collaborative) learning to make sure each student is learning at his or her personal best.  Students are given a variety of options to show that they have learned the content.  Each student has an individual blackboard account in which they document what they have learned in each class. The parent portal allow parents to access the account and view the content of what is learned.

Teachers at FLES have put electronic learning tools in the hands of students obtaining interactive smart boards and a “Tech Zone” of eight internet-connected computers for every classroom.  Another crucial thing they did was to insist on effective and job-embedded professional development on technology to help the teachers know how and why to integrate the technology in the design of their learning activities.  Finally, because they were selected as a NASA Explorer School, NASA provides the focus for learning math, science, technology, engineering, and geography during the day, and through videoconferencing in an after-school girls-only program.  

How It's Done

Put the Tools in Kids' Hands

FLES differentiates student learning by using technology tools.  The teachers determine the progress of the students using frequent assessments so that they can design learning activities that don’t reteach what is already known and are unique for what each student needs.  The ultimate differentiation tool that is used are the stations where students learn at their own pace independently.  Given appropriate training, the students self govern their learning.  This allows teachers more time to work with individual students.


  • Interactive whiteboards: Students touch the interactive boards to solve math problems, play games, or write and edit text.
  • Remote clickers: Ideal for doing quick, real-time assessments as you teach. You can also use them for pretests and posttests or even formal tests for credit.
  • Digital video cameras: Forest Lake students have used Flip video cameras to photograph shapes around the school and document field trips and film their original skits or record a presentation to show their class.
  • Mobile devices: Students use them with special probes to measure the local climate.

How to Make it Work

Customizing your teaching to suit each child makes eminent sense. Kids are different, they learn differently, so we should teach them differently, right? But when you're staring out at 20 or 30 students as individual as snowflakes, you may find yourself asking that ever-daunting question: "How?"  Below are suggestions on how to do that using technology.

  • Maintain Rigor: Give them a rubric up front, so they know what's expected of them. If possible, show examples of model work. (Download sample rubrics from Forest Lake.)
  • Make Connections: With webcams and video conferences, kids can see and talk to their peers in real time.  Prepare before the meet-up: study the culture, brainstorm questions, discuss Internet safety, and learn email etiquette.
  • Give Independence: Train the kids on what to do and then let them do it. To start last year, teacher Kevin Durden gave his fourth graders step-by-step instructions for blogging about literature and posting comments on their classmates' blogs. He posted a response to every blog entry to show them the level of discourse he expected. By February, they were sustaining the online dialogue all on their own.
  • Curate students' online destinations: Give them a clear purpose and a list of sites you've reviewed to choose from. Pick sites that are kid-friendly, colorful, and engaging.  Leave more independent exploration for middle school.
  • Give kids a real audience: Technology opens up new ways for kids to show their work to the world.  At Forest Lake, fifth graders studying erosion took photographs of patches of their playground that were washing away, then sent the snaps to the school district office with suggestions on how to correct the problem. Second graders videotaped themselves reviewing books they'd read, then voted on the best recordings to show to kindergarteners down the hall.
  • Relax: Teach them basic care. Show them how to wear the camera strap around their wrist; tuck the computer cables under the table; use protective cases when possible. Make the kids feel like these valuable tools are theirs, and chances are they'll want to take care of them.
  • Have a backup plan: Don't get caught lesson-less in the event of a technological meltdown, keep some spare batteries on hand just in case, but there's nothing wrong with the printed page if all else fails.

Comments (7) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Debra Irving's picture

This concept is amazing! The video gets stuck each time, however at 2:26. Is this an internal error to the video,or do you have another suggeston for viewing the entire video? Amazing, amazing program!!

Amy Erin Borovoy (aka VideoAmy)'s picture

Hi Debra -

Sorry to hear this video is causing problems for you... sometimes a new version of Flash is needed, or a slow connection can also cause hiccups.

We've just posted this video on YouTube, as well, so you can try viewing it there.

Thanks for the feedback, and glad you enjoyed it!

Rod Diercks's picture
Rod Diercks
College Professor in Teacher Education from Doane College, Crete Nebraska

How did this school get so much technology for the 1 to 1 ratio. I enjoyed seeing the engaged learning and positive attitudes.

Shewanner.Young's picture


Judith's picture
Student teacher - Single Subject Math

It seems like all the students are very engaged. Would you say that it is because they have access to so much technology all day long? I wish I had been in this classroom when I was growing up and learning science? It would have made it so much more appealing. ;)

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