The Formative

The role formative assessment is often unclear in classrooms.  Misunderstandings about assessment types, grades, and achieving mastery has muddied the waters of the formative assessments.


FOR what purpose?

FOR who?

FOR what now?


Clearing Up Definitions

The Formative Assessment is an assessment for learning.  (Ainsworth & Viegut, 2006, Bailey & Jakicic, 2012) It occurs during the learning instructional interval and provides information about student learning progress.  Information from this assessment can be used to guide instructional responses and instructional interventions.

Formatives can be very formal (vocabulary quiz at the end of class) or quite informal (discussion with a small group of students about lab results).  The key factor in the formative assessment is the teacher’s ability to continue to use the results in planning additional instruction.  The assessment must be “integrated into the act of teaching” for it to be considered formative (Gareis & Grant, 2015).

This is in stark contrast to the summative assessment.  The Summative Assessment is an assessment of learning  (Ainsworth & Viegut, 2006, Bailey & Jakicic, 2012).  The assessment occurs at the end of an instructional interval (Gareis & Grant, 2015). Sometimes assessments are considered summative when the results are returned after the instructional interval is complete and no response to the results can be taken (ex: some state testing).

The interim assessment often causes a degree of confusion.  Also known as a benchmark assessment, interim assessments are intended to indicate progress toward the mastery of a set of learning outcomes that will be summative assessed on a subsequent standardized assessment or end of course exam. (Gareis & Grant, 2015).  An interim assessment can (and typically should) also be a formative assessment if the results are used to adjust teaching and help students to be more successful on the subsequent assessment.

Types of Formatives

  1. Classroom Specific Formative:  This is a formative adopted or created by a single teacher and designed to measure learning by his/her own students only.
  2. Common Formative (CFA): This assessment is designed to measure learning across multiple teacher’s classrooms.  The assessment is typically created by a team of teachers and is given to all students enrolled in a class or course.  Some common formatives can be used as interim assessments (ex: common writing rubric aligned to rubric used on College Board AP test).

FORmatives FOR what purpose?

Most teachers assess before the instructional interval is complete.  We often see drafts of papers, small discussions and quizzes.

formative assessment doesn't have to be pen and paper

Purpose:  To gage student understanding

YES!  Thanks to the commonly accepted definition of formative assessment, formative is generally used to describe any method of giving and obtaining feedback on student learning.  Its the chance to see where the student needs to improve.  But, the term “assessment” is so engrained in our heads to mean a formal task that many teachers don’t see informal feedback to students as an actual formative.  Isn’t a discussion one-0n-one with a student as valuable, if not more valuable, than a written assessment?

Purpose:  To give grades during the instructional interval

MAYBE? The purpose of the formative is often muddied by the collection of points toward the student’s grade. In the traditional grading paradigm, teachers grade EVERYTHING.  Grades on a formative are interesting because by simple definition the formative occurs during the instructional interval–when learning is not yet complete.  There are many (Stiggins, 2015) that believe anything formative needs to be evaluated but not graded.  Thus, can we say the purpose of formative assessment is to grade progress? Maybe not. If we are only measuring progress, then shouldn’t a student who is making progress after the formative be able to change that grade?

FORmatives FOR who?

When we administer a formative assessment who benefits from the results of that tool?

WHO: The Teacher

It is widely accepted that teachers get information from formatives to adjust instruction.  Formatives can spotlight which students are struggling, and which students are growing.  Formatives can highlight instructional techniques that are effective, and for which students they are working best.  Formatives can help teachers identify next steps in teaching and learning.

Feedback for student

WHO: The Student

But it doesn’t stop there.  Formatives provide feedback to the LEARNER as well.  Good formative assessment keeps students believing that success is within reach if they keep trying.(Stiggins, 2015).  Think about the process of being evaluated.  There is an emotional risk: we want students to “stay on board” as the growth is happening.  A formative can do a great job of helping a student see where they currently are in relation to where they need to go, or it can be demoralizing and cause the student to disengage.

Punitive grading on formatives sends a hidden message that is internalized by the student–“Im’ just not smart” or “I’m not good at math.”  This self-efficacy becomes a self fulfilling prophesy and part of the fixed mindset (Vatterott, 2015).  To encourage a growth mindset in our students, requires thinking about the formative as a step along the learning path.  Rethinking our approach to formatives requires us to see the student’s growth through feedback as a major reason for formative assessment.

We know the extreme importance of feedback in the learning process (Hattie, 2009) such that specific feedback is incredibly influential on student learning.  As the specific feedback becomes part of the student belief construct, it has further impact on learning.  (Sadler, 1998, Stiggins, 2015)  Here are the components of the Belief Construct:

  1. Where am I going? Keeps student understanding the achievement target they are aspiring toward
  2. Where am I at?  Student should be aware of where they stand in regard to the target
  3. What do I need to do? Student should understand how to close the gap between #1 and #2.


FORmatives FOR what now?

Once the formative results are in and the student and the teacher are absorbing the meaning, there needs to be a next step.  Simply recording the scores and acknowledging understanding is not an endpoint.

NOW: Analysis of Results

Formally, or informally every formative needs to be evaluated.  That does not mean a grade on the top, circled in red.  That means feeback to the student through writing, conferences or discussion.  Feedback must be descriptive and understandable to the studetn so that it can be constructively used to continue improving learning.

NOW: Pivot Learning

      Most formatives show learning gaps.  Each student has a unique set of learning needs.  This is where we need to stop, look at those learning needs…PIVOT…and proceed carefully in directions that will benefit our students.  That could mean encouraging an advanced student through an extension project, it could mean realizing that a group of students doesn’t have the vocabulary understanding at Depth of Knowledge (DOK) level 1 to even begin the analysis we are asking them to complete.


    The toolbox for learning will look different for different learning needs.  Thus every pivot will mean picking up a different tool. The master teacher will know which brushes to paint with for each child and knows that each child doesn’t need the same thing.  What does your tool box look like?  Do you have tools for different levels of need?


    That’s our next step.  Fill our toolbox for personalized learning.
    Want more about Formatives? Check out this quick video…

The Evolving Landscape of Grading

Formative assessments such as pretests and quizzes: how many points should they be worth?  I argue 0.  If we have not taught, or finished teaching the material, why would we expect the student’s current level of performance to mean anything final?  What about participation or effort points then, can I put that in the grade book?

Many people feel strongly that grades should reflect more than learning.  I disagree.  Grades in mathematics should reflect the student’s current knowledge of math just as the art grade should reflect their performance on the art project and mastery of art class objectives.  The grade should not measure moral virtue, attitude, or attendance.  Not that this information should not be reported, as records and reports can and should still reflect this to parents, other schools, etc. However, weed to tease apart the student’s proficiency in a subject from their behavior such that the grade is meaningful.

What are we Grading?

Far too often grades are used to measure behaviors.  Didn’t bring your book to class? Take off 5 points.  Homework is late?  That’s half credit.  Disrespectful behavior?  Student gets a zero for the day.  “Grades have evolved into an elaborate system of control,” (Vatterott, 2015)

In the traditional grading paradigm, where teachers appear to grade everything a student does, the grade no longer is a representation of academic knowledge. It represents their attitude, combined with their formative scores halfway through the learning process, combined with their final level of knowledge. Too much combined into one academic rating waters down the meaning of the grade.

“Will this count for a grade?”

This is a phrase heard throughout many classrooms.  Teachers lament a student’s lack of effort on a project that was not graded.  Students scrounge for points through calculating which projects are worth many points, and where they can scrounge up some extra credit for going to see a play or attending a sports pep rally.  Especially in the older grades, students are motivated to do because they receive points.

It is a worthwhile discussion:  Once you can convince students that learning is the ultimate goal and the grade is a reflection of that learning, can motivation may be switched to focus on learning rather than a collection of points?

Over time, students have been conditioned that behaviors are the way tick off their points toward the “A.”  If the task won’t count toward my grade, many students don’t understand why they should expend effort on the assignment.

How can we adjust motivation to be focused less on points at the moment for each and every learning activity, but rather on the delayed gratification of a summative project or assessment looming weeks in the future?

The Evolving Landscape

With the rise of more common and appropriate formative assessments, teachers have reached a tipping point.  The desire to grade each and everything a student does in the classroom drives a strong desire to grade each and every formative.

It is true, anything students do should be evaluated by the teacher.  But rather than in terms of a grade, it can be evaluated in terms of their present level of performance as compared to the future, desired level of performance.  The teacher can provide the student deep, descriptive feedback on what they need to do in order to improve.  Teachers should keep good records of the changes students are making.  However, until learning is complete, the grade book doesn’t need to be opened.  If we are not done teaching the student, how can we assign a “D” to their current level of performance?

Feedback on their performance can exist without labeling it with a grade!

Check out these great books below. Great resources for continuing the conversation.