Part 1: What is “Formative Assessment”?

One of the most difficult issues to pin down when planning a long-term project is the grading process. For as long as I’ve been collaborating with teachers, this issue has continued to crop up, so I finally decided to collect my arguments and advice into a single resource. A conference proposal seemed like the perfect way to ensure I actually did the work I’d planned. After all, once you submit your proposal, you know you’ll have to have it all pulled together for the audience when the time comes. This past week I shared my thoughts about feedback during the last session of the last day of the . As I was finishing my virtual session, I promised the attendees who had asked for slides that I’d write a series of posts instead.

First, it’s important to establish what formative assessment actually is. It should be clear to anyone teaching, but after years of listening to my children say things like, “I got a low grade on that quiz but I don’t care. It’s only a formative assessment,” meaning that the grade was just a small percentage of the grade for the term. For some reason, teachers and students had adopted this idea that “small” grades were “formative” and “large” grades were “summative.” I’m not so sure anyone in their school district actually understood the concepts. Let’s be clear. Size doesn’t matter.

Formative assessment is the process of evaluating the information students know, the skills they have mastered, and how they apply both. Using that information, teachers can adjust classroom activities and the availability of supports to help students do better. As part of the formative assessment process, teachers also give students feedback letting them know what they are doing well, where they need to improve, and specifically what they need to do to improve. Simply giving students a grade does not provide this actionable, specific feedback. Grades are therefore not formative. If a teacher gives a quiz halfway through a unit and all the students get is a grade while the teacher continues along the pacing guide, the quiz is only a means to populate a grade book. It is not a formative assessment. Further, nothing a teacher has students do can be considered “formative assessment” unless it also serves as an impetus for teachers to adjust what they are doing to ensure students are more able to meet the goals. Otherwise it is just busy work.

In addition to adjusting classroom activities and available supports for students, teachers must clearly communicate to the students what they need to do, or what they need to do differently in order to succeed. A grade without any additional information is not feedback.

So, with this in mind, and before I move on to the next post discussing possible ways to plan a project to allow for effective formative assessment, I have to clarify. There is no such thing as a “formative assessment tool.” There are tools that gather data that you may use for formative assessment. However, simply using a tool that asks questions and gives you immediate results is just a busy work generator unless you follow through with the rest of the process. The next time you run across , look through it with a hefty dose of skepticism. No tool can do “formative assessment” for you. It can only help you gather data you can use to help your students. Only you can adjust the pacing, the activities, and the support you offer the students, and this is the reason to gather “formative” information. And, of course, only you can give students the specific, actionable feedback they need to transform their work and their learning.

Read the other articles in this series:

Read the other articles in this series:

Part 1:
Part 2:
Part 3:
Part 4:

Instructional coach, technology enthusiast, macro photographer always looking for new things to learn.

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