How are students doing? Are they picking up the information they should be learning? Teachers who don’t want to wait until the end of a unit or semester use various tactics, like formative assessment, to “check in” with students and see how they are progressing.

What makes formative assessment stand out?

Formative assessment involves the use of immediate insights to guide instruction. If we break down the term, we see that “Formative” comes from Latin formare ‘to form.’  Assessment simply refers to an evaluation. Together the words “formative” and  “assessment” refer to a guiding evaluation that helps to shape something.  With formative assessment, teachers mold or form instruction to better suit student learning. To glean actionable insights, the best formative assessments are generally easy to implement and offer immediate results that lead to instant intervention or instructional adjustments.

Happy students doing formative assessment

Formative assessment is a low-stakes, quick way to check in with students. Photo by US Department of Education.

Here’s how education academics Paul Black and Dylan William explain the differences between formative assessment and the general term “assessment”:

We use the general term assessment to refer to all those activities undertaken by teachers — and by their students in assessing themselves — that provide information to be used as feedback to modify teaching and learning activities. Such assessment becomes formative assessment when the evidence is actually used to adapt the teaching to meet student needs.

Black, P. & Wiliam, D. 1998. Inside the Black Box: Raising standards through classroom assessment, King’s College, London

Another Way to Check-up on Everyone

Formative Assessment AnalogyOne common way to think of a formative assessment is to think about “check-ups” with the doctor. During a check-up, the doctor assesses the status of your health to make sure you are on track and to identify any areas where you might need more attention or support. It can be used to promote healthy habits or catch symptoms of illness. If the doctor notices something amiss, they may ask you to exercise more or eat less sugar and more vegetables! The goal is to make strategic changes based on new insights. Similarly, formative assessment provides feedback to teachers, allowing them to “check-in” on how students are doing, or, to match this analogy, the “health” of learning!

Components that Define Formative Assessment

The main intent of formative assessment is to gather insight about student learning during a unit to track student progress and inform instruction.

Formative assessments usually comprise of the following key aspects

  • Low-stakes assessment
  • Goal of informing instruction
  • Gain insight on learning status
  • Helps identify knowledge retention and understanding
  • Daily, weekly, or otherwise frequent checks
  • Generally short and quick checks
  • Comes in many forms: quiz, exit ticket, artwork, venn diagram, game, presentation, etc.

Examples of Formative Assessment

Formative assessments could include benchmark tests, a class discussion, an “exit ticket” activity or any check-in the teacher conducts to see how much has been learned.  By taking a quick formative assessment, the teacher can see how much has been retained and then modify the upcoming lessons or activities to fill in the gaps or pick up the pace.  It allows, as the name suggests, a teacher to form or reshape the lessons as they go. Formative assessments can sometimes be called interim assessments.

As you might be able to tell, formative assessments come in many shapes and sizes. They are used by a teacher to assess, or diagnose, how much information has been learned at periodic times in the middle of a unit, subject or year. Formative assessments are the close cousin to diagnostic assessments (add link).

Formative assessments are used in the middle of a learning process to determine if students are maintaining the right pace.

Whether teaching about long division or astronauts, formative assessment will help you discover who understands the concepts and who is spacing out. Picture by Laurie Sullivan.

Keep In Mind  

The second trend driving formative assessments is the common-core style of standardized tests.  Many schools are using formative tests to help guide the preparation of their students for the formal spring testing season– a time when results have an important impact on the school, district, and even the state. These kind of high-stakes assessments, such as PARCC, SBAC, AIR, ACT Aspire, etc., are driving the need for formative assessments throughout the year.

Like diagnostic assessments, formative assessments are usually given “cold”, without prior access to the information, to get an accurate sample of what has been retained. Similarly, they most often carry little weight towards the student’s final grade.

Online Formative Assessment with Edulastic

Many teachers use online digital assessment to gain immediate insights into student progress so they can immediately adjust teaching strategies or intervene where needed. Online assessment autogrades so ultimately teachers are able to save time and spend more time focusing on strong and effective instruction.

Log onto Edulastic to access a wide number of online digital assessments in the public assessment library. You may notice that a significant portion of digital assessments in the library are dedicated to helping students prepare for spring testing.  Many Edulastic Certified assessments are modeled after the tech-enhanced style of questions that are found on the spring assessments. Using these throughout the year helps students build a comfort level with tech-enhanced maneuvers that are key to success on spring tests.

Get inspired! Try out some online formative assessments created by teachers across the country. Assign them to your students or log in to Edulastic to create a free account and start making your own!

Punnett Square Formative Assessment V1 – PreviewAccess

Greek/Latin Roots Quiz – Preview / Access

Logarithmic Functions – Preview / Access

Alg 1B Quiz #25 – 8.3/4 Multiplying Polynomials – Preview / Access



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