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What Are Formative Assessments and Why Should We Use Them?

By Judith Dodge

Tips for using formative assessments to help you differentiate instruction and improve student achievement


3–5, 6–8

Traditionally, we have used assessments to measure how much our students have learned up to a particular point in time. This is called "assessment of learning" — or what we use to see whether our students are meeting standards set by the state, the district, or the classroom teacher. These summative assessments are conducted after a unit or certain time period to determine how much learning has taken place. Although assessments of learning are important if we are to ascribe grades to students and provide accountability, teachers should also focus more on assessment for learning. These types of assessment — formative assessments — support learning during the learning process.

Since formative assessments are considered part of the learning, they need not be graded as summative assessments (end-of-unit exams or quarterlies, for example) are. Rather, they serve as practice for students, just like a meaningful homework assignment. They check for understanding along the way and guide teacher decision making about future instruction; they also provide feedback to students so they can improve their performance. Educational consultant Rick Stiggins suggests "the student's role is to strive to understand what success looks like and to use each assessment to try to understand how to do better the next time." Formative assessments help us differentiate instruction and thus improve student achievement.

When I work with teachers during staff development, they often tell me they don't have time to assess students along the way. They fear sacrificing coverage and insist they must move on quickly. Yet in the rush to cover more, students are actually learning less. Without time to reflect on and interact meaningfully with new information, students are unlikely to retain much of what is "covered" in their classrooms.

Formative assessments, however, do not have to take an inordinate amount of time. While a few types (such as extended responses or essays) take considerably more time than others, many are quick and easy to use on a daily basis. On balance, the time they take from a lesson is well worth the information you gather and the retention students gain.

Using a Variety of Formative Assessments

The National Forum on Assessment (1995) suggests that assessment systems include opportunities for both individual and group work. To provide you with a comprehensive repertoire, I have labeled each assessment as Individual, Partner, Small Group, or Whole Class. Listening in on student partners or small-group conversations allows you to quickly identify problems or misconceptions, which you can address immediately. If you choose a group assessment activity, you will frequently want to follow it up with an individual one to more effectively pinpoint what each student needs.

Often, the opportunity to work with others before working on their own leads students toward mastery. The group assessment process is part of the learning; don't feel you must grade it. The individual assessment that follows can remain ungraded, as well, although it will be most useful if you provide some feedback to the learner, perhaps in the form of a brief comment or, at the very least, a check, check-plus or check-minus, with a brief verbal explanation about what each symbol indicates (You have mastered the skill, You need more practice, etc.).

By varying the type of assessment you use over the course of the week, you can get a more accurate picture of what students know and understand, obtaining a "multiple-measure assessment ‘window' into student understanding" (Ainsworth & Viegut, 2006). Using at least one formative assessment daily enables you to evaluate and assess the quality of the learning that is taking place in your classroom and answer these driving questions: How is this student evolving as a learner? What can I do to assist this learner on his path to mastery?

Types of Assessment Strategies

I have chosen a variety of quick ways for you to check for understanding and gather "evidence" of learning in your classroom.

  • Summaries and Reflections Students stop and reflect, make sense of what they have heard or read, derive personal meaning from their learning experiences, and/or increase their metacognitive skills. These require that students use content-specific language.
  • Lists, Charts, and Graphic Organizers Students will organize information, make connections, and note relationships through the use of various graphic organizers.
  • Visual Representations of Information Students will use both words and pictures to make connections and increase memory, facilitating retrieval of information later on. This "dual coding" helps teachers address classroom diversity, preferences in learning style, and different ways of "knowing."
  • Collaborative Activities Students have the opportunity to move and/or communicate with others as they develop and demonstrate their understanding of concepts.


How to Use the Assessments in This Book

The quick formative assessments found within this book are designed for easy implementation in any classroom. Almost all can be used, with a little modification, throughout grades 3-8 and across the curriculum. A few are better for either younger or more sophisticated learners. Each strategy is labeled for easy identification by grade level on the list of strategies. For each strategy, I provide the following.

  • Introduction: A description of the strategy and the relevant research behind it. I will explain how the strategy supports differentiated instruction.
  • Step-by-Step Instructions: Steps for introducing and modeling the strategy for students
  • Applications: Suggestions regarding what you can assess with the strategy

In addition, for many strategies you'll find:

  • Tips for Tiering: Any ideas specific to the strategy for supporting struggling learners and challenging advanced learners
  • TechConnect: Ideas for integrating technology with the formative assessment


Exit Cards

One of the easiest formative assessments is the Exit Card. Exit Cards are index cards (or sticky notes) that students hand to you, deposit in a box, or post on the door as they leave your classroom. On the Exit Card, your students have written their names and have responded to a question, solved a problem, or summarized their understanding after a particular learning experience. In a few short minutes, you can read the responses, sort them into groups (students who have not yet mastered the skill, students who are ready to apply the skill, students who are ready to go ahead or to go deeper), and use the data to inform the next day's or, even, that afternoon's instruction.

Feedback provided by the Exit Cards frequently leads to the formation of a needs-based group whose members require re-teaching of the concept in a different way. It also identifies which of your students do not need to participate in your planned whole-group mini-lesson, because they are ready to be challenged at a greater level of complexity.

Several of the formative assessments contained in this book can be used as Exit Cards. In the table I have placed an asterisk next to those assessments that you can use as an Exit Card to quickly sort and group students for subsequent instruction.

Keeping Track of the Data

When you use formative assessments, you must keep track of the data that you collect. The easiest way to observe and assess student growth is to walk around your room with a clipboard and sticky notes. As you notice acquisition of a new skill or confusion and struggle with a skill, record the student's name and jot down a brief comment. Consider keeping a folder for each child in which you insert any notes that you make on a daily basis. This process will help you focus on the needs of individual students when you confer with each child or develop lessons for your whole class.

Another way to keep track of the data is to use a class list. On this sheet, you can note specific skills and record how each student is doing. You can use a system of check-minus, check, and check-plus or the numbers 4, 3, 2, 1 to indicate student proficiency with the skill.

Differentiating Instruction in Response to Formative Assessments

Thomas R. Guskey suggests that for assessments to become an integral part of the instructional process, teachers need to change their approach in three important ways. They must "1) use assessments as sources of information for both students and teachers, 2) follow assessments with high-quality corrective instruction, and 3) give students second chances to demonstrate success" (2007).

Once you have assessed your learners, you must take action. You will be able to help your students achieve success by differentiating your instruction based on the information you have gathered. Ask yourself, "Who needs my attention now? Which students need a different approach? Which students are not learning anything new, because I haven't challenged them?"

"Tiering" your activities for two or three levels of learners is usually what is called for after a review of assessment data. We must be prepared to provide both corrective activities and enrichment activities for those who need them. An important caveat to keep in mind, however, is that the follow-up, corrective instruction designed to help students must present concepts in new ways and engage students in different learning experiences that are more appropriate for them (Guskey, 2007/2008). Your challenge will be to find a new and different pathway to understanding. The best corrective activities involve a change in format, organization, or method of presentation (Guskey, 2007/2008).

After using any of the formative assessments contained in this book, you can choose from among these suggestions to scaffold your struggling learners or challenge your advanced learners. The suggestions for struggling learners will help students during their "second-chance" learning on the road toward mastery. The suggestions for advanced learners will challenge those students who, in my opinion, are frequently forgotten in mixed-ability classrooms. With these easy adjustments to your lesson plans, you will be able to respond to the diverse readiness needs of students in your heterogeneous classroom.

Gathering Multiple Sources of Evidence

In differentiated classrooms everywhere, a resounding mantra is "Fair is not equal; fair is getting what you need." Assessments enable us to determine what students need. But for our assessments to be accurate, we need multiple measures of student understanding. We need evidence gathered over time in different ways to evaluate how effective the teaching and learning process has been. Tomlinson and McTighe (2006) suggest that when we gather a "photo album" rather than a "snapshot" of our students, we can differentiate instruction based on a more accurate evaluation of our students' learning needs.

I wish you success as you gather your own "photo album" of your students and choose from a variety of reflective, unique, and engaging assessment tools. This book offers you an "assessment tool kit" to choose from as you create a classroom that is continually more responsive to the needs of your diverse learners. These assessments will provide you and your students "evidence" of their learning and help them on their journey to greater achievement in school.

Response to Intervention (RTI)

With the reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA, 2004) under No Child Left Behind, schools are searching for ways to implement the newly required Response to Intervention (RTI) model. This new way of delivering intervention to struggling students encompasses a three-tiered model.

Tier 1 interventions include monitoring at-risk students within the general education classroom, ensuring that each student has access to a high-quality education that is matched to his or her needs. RTI focuses on improving academic achievement by using scientifically based instructional practices.

According to the National Association of State Directors of Special Education (2005), Tier 1 strategies encompass "alternative assessment which utilizes quality interventions matched to student needs, coupled with formative evaluation to obtain data over time to make critical educational decisions." Not to be confused with tiered activities, which are a cornerstone of a differentiated classroom (where one concept is taught at two or three levels of readiness), Tier I activities are any of the in-class interventions classroom teachers provide to assess and monitor their at-risk students.

The evidence-based formative assessments provided in this book are excellent methods for classroom teachers to measure the progress of their Tier 1 students.


This article is excerpted from 25 Quick Formative Assessments for a Differentiated Classroom by Judith Dodge.

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