A Better Understanding of Formative Assessment is Step One

A Better Understanding of Formative Assessment is Step One

There is a lot of confusion and misconception that exists when it comes to assessments, both with educators and parents. Many people, when they think of assessments, think of summative accountability assessments, those state or district-wide standardized tests that measure grade-level proficiency, and end-of-year subject or course exams. There are also interim or benchmark exams. Interim assessment may be administered multiple times between instances of summative assessment to measure progress towards meeting the summative expectations (interim benchmark assessment) or to measure growth on a continuum of learning (interim growth measures). To get a better sense of the various definitions of assessment and their roles in the classroom, check out our site AssessmentLiteracy.org.

As a huge proponent of formative assessment, it can often be frustrating to hear people when they lump it into the interim or benchmark assessment category. To me, formative assessment is not necessarily a test and it certainly isn’t for grading. Actually, I believe most data can be used formatively, but some of it has a short shelf-life. Earlier this year Jonathan Martin posted a blog about Pat Bassett’s NAIS presentation – Formative Assessment, Practical Skills, and PBL: What’s Next on the Horizon. In it he alluded to the possible confusion that can result when the lines of formative assessment and testing is blurred.

Formative can, awfully quickly, become defined only in the eye of the beholder.  A test result which a teacher believes to be formative can, in the eyes of parents or principals, become viewed as summative judgment of whether a student is learning and whether a teacher is succeeding.   This is something I want to see happen, but we need to be wary about the possibilities.

Formative assessment is planned classroom practice to elicit evidence of learning minute-to-minute, day-by-day in the classroom; along with non-summative assessments, formative happens while content is still being taught. Both of these can inform teachers of what students know or do not know and help students understand what it is they are ready to learn next, so teachers can adjust their instruction accordingly for each of their students.

Formative assessment is a practice; something an educator does as part of their job to understand student learning. We’ve blogged on a number of these formative assessment strategies; tactics that a teacher can use to quickly take their students’ temperature so they know whether their teaching is on target. I’ll refer again to Jay McTighe and Ken O’Connor in their article – Seven Practices for Effective Learning:

Formative assessments occur concurrently with instruction. These ongoing assessments provide specific feedback to teachers and students for the purpose of guiding teaching to improve learning. Formative assessments include both formal and informal methods, such as ungraded quizzes, oral questioning, teacher observations, draft work, think-alouds, student-constructed concept maps, learning logs, and portfolio reviews.

Dylan Wiliam is also a leading expert on formative assessment and embedding it in classroom instruction and his five strategies for successful implementation are:

1. Clarifying, sharing, and understanding learning intentions and criteria for success – getting the students to really understand what their classroom experience will be and how their success will be measured.

2. Engineering effective classroom discussions, activities, and learning tasks that elicit evidence of learning – developing effective classroom instructional strategies that allow for the measurement of success.

3. Providing feedback that moves learning forward – working with students to provide them the information they need to better understand problems and solutions, so they can provide feedback to themselves and others.

4. Activating learners as instructional resources for one another – getting students involved with each other in discussions and working groups can help improve student learning.

5. Activating learners as owners of their own learning – We wrote a blog on this topic: self-regulation of learning leads to student performance improvement.

Formative assessment can play a major role in improving both teaching and student learning if it’s implemented correctly and understood. Have you tried using formative assessment in your classroom or school? Share your thoughts below.


How to prepare kids for testing

Assessment data is most useful when students are able to give their best effort on a test. There’s a lot you can do to set them up for success—even when testing remotely.

Read more


Set goals for growth and mastery

Ready to set some goals for your students, classroom, or school? Download our guide for quick tips, perspectives from educators, and printable resources.

Get the guide


A small step for big gains in equity

Academic success can depend largely on what kids learn by third grade. The right assessment empowers teachers to differentiate instruction as early as kindergarten, so no one gets left behind.

See how