Why Formative Assessment is a Valuable Teaching Tool

Student taking an assessment.

In that great collection of teacher tools, one lurks in the shadows as a sometimes overlooked but incredibly powerful tool⏤formative assessments. Formative assessments are a valuable piece of the instructional process, but they can get a bad rap because many believe that students are over-tested. Any mention of some sort of assessment, and educators go on high alert.

But before you start looking elsewhere for a tool, let’s take a moment to reflect on what formative assessment is and its many benefits.

What is Formative Assessment? 

Formative assessment is a unique species in the world of assessment.  Often we think of assessment OF learning in the sense that we determine what students learned at the end of a unit. This usually involves a lengthy assessment.

However, with a lens to use assessment as a tool FOR learning, formative assessments typically occur with one or two responses and are progressive throughout the learning process. This way, gaps are identified early and addressed through reteaching. Equally, student success is identified early, so that teachers don’t linger over content that they’ve already mastered.

Paul Bambrick-Santoyo, in Leverage Leadership 2.0 states, “We tend to think of assessment as the endpoint of learning, but in reality, it’s where learning begins.”

Why is it Important? 

The nature of formative assessment is information gathering, and information is power in the hands of the informed! Teachers gather information about their students’ mastery of a concept and where gaps remain that need to be addressed. They learn where they need to adjust their pacing and where they need to differentiate for different learning styles.

Students also learn from formative assessment. They can see where they have strengths, but they can also identify misconceptions or understanding that is still developing. Student ownership of learning begins when they know what they should learn and have checkpoints along the way to make adjustments. In his work, Instructional Coaching, Dr. Jim Knight also emphasizes the importance of both the teacher and the student knowing the learning target.

But without a way to measure progress towards mastery, even our very best lesson plans may fall short. Formative assessment is the tool to provide those incremental points of feedback. It also provides guidance to monitor progress toward the targeted mastery.

Without a way to measure progress towards mastery, even our very best lesson plans may fall short.

The most impactful planning will embed measures to determine what students have learned and what they still need to learn. Formative assessments showcase the impact of our instruction so that we can adjust to match the needs of the learner.

What Does it Measure? 

Exit tickets are a popular means to formative assessment, and can be a great way to capture the learning quickly. However, it’s important to make sure that the assessment, whether in the form of an exit ticket or other means, really provides the information that both the teacher and the student need.

A general reflection or opportunity to “write one thing you learned today” may have a place in reflection, but it cannot truly serve as an effective formative assessment. Formative assessment must match the content and the rigor of the concept in order to be effective. Otherwise, it can give you a false sense of where the students are in their mastery.

Formative assessment must match the content and the rigor of the concept in order to be effective.

Teachers must determine what to teach through careful analysis of the standard and how it will be assessed. This is backward planning of instruction at its best! This will help to make sure that instruction aligns with the expectations for learning as measured with short formative assessments along the way, leading to concept mastery and ultimately, successful summative assessment. 

In summary, effective formative assessments and instruction are aligned at the level of rigor needed to master the standard. They are used to inform next steps in instruction for teachers and learning for students. For the most impact, these short, bite-sized assessments occur frequently throughout the instructional cycle of a concept.

Bring TEKS-aligned lesson plans and rigorous formative assessments to your campus through Texas Instructional Leadership!

LaWanda Carley is a Senior Coordinator for Educator Evaluation and Leadership here at Region 13.

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