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Why Formative Assessments Are Vital

By: Ashleigh Crabtree 01/03/2023
Formative learning assessments let you uncover what your students know and don’t know so you can improve learning outcomes throughout the year. 
Student wearing headphones and using a tablet.

In the educational assessment world, summative state assessments—or end-of-year assessments—tend to be front and center. While they’re an important tool for assessing student knowledge at a certain point, summative assessments don’t deliver the consistent data about student learning that you need throughout the school year.

But formative learning assessments help you uncover what your students know about a subject while they’re learning. Finding just the right way to assess in-progress learning might seem overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be.

What Is a Formative Assessment?

Formative learning assessments are planned, ongoing processes that educators use to understand and improve student learning outcomes by supporting students in becoming self-directed learners. Dylan Wiliam, an authority on formative assessment, illustrates it another way: “Summative assessment is like a thermometer—it tells us the temperature. Formative assessment, on the other hand, is like a thermostat—it measures the hotness or coldness of a room AND adjusts the temperature accordingly.”

Formative assessments help you understand what misconceptions are blocking your students from their lightbulb moments, where your students are on the path to deeper learning, and what steps you can take to support them.

The formative assessment process provides actionable learning evidence in the moment—minute by minute, day by day—to advance learning. Formative assessment can take the form of a test or a collection of targeted questions about a specific learning standard, but it can also appear in less obvious ways such as observations, discussions, projects, self-assessments, hand signals, or sharing activities. Any planned opportunity to check your students’ understanding or knowledge that includes actionable and enacted results can be considered a formative assessment.

Why Use Formative Assessments?

Formative assessments promote learning. When done well, they can provide information you can use to check progress, modify instruction, and be responsive to your students’ instructional needs. And you can use the data from formative assessments to make decisions about individualized instruction that are more specific.

When Should You Assess?

Formative assessment should be ongoing and flow naturally with instruction. You can use formative assessments to understand where your students are, where they need to go, and how to get them there. Only then can you provide them with opportunities for enrichment and deeper understanding or alter your instructional approach for those who may benefit from further teaching.

Where to Use Assessments

You can use formative assessment processes wherever you’re teaching—in the classroom, in groups, or in virtual learning environments—so you can check for understanding and provide meaningful feedback wherever you teach.

Who Should Use Assessments?

You and your students are equally important when it comes to formative assessments. The process requires a collaborative classroom environment in which you and your students all benefit from dialogue about learning. Students need opportunities to give and receive feedback, understand where they are in their learning journeys, and express the need for clarification, reteaching, or an extension of learning. Formative assessments, while beneficial for teachers, also allow students to be agents of their own learning. Denise Hiott, seventh grade math teacher in Tennessee, says, “When teachers can understand strengths and weaknesses quickly, they can implement classroom changes that can transform a classroom. The quality of instruction has nowhere to go but up when you have quality assessments.”

How to Use Assessments

Several key practices contribute to successful formative assessment processes.

  • Practice should be targeted and intentional.

    Think about small measurements—specific, pinpointed evaluation of a skill or concept currently being taught. Being able to target specific preconceptions or misconceptions is key to advancing learning and allowing for deeper understanding. These processes don’t have to be complex, but they should provide actionable information.

  • Feedback should be used immediately to adjust teaching.

    Using formative assessment data in real time lets you adjust your instruction and respond in the moment to your students’ needs. Formative feedback and flexible instruction plans are efficient ways to help your students achieve proficiency in skills or concepts.

  • Students should be partners in the process.

    Don’t keep feedback a secret. Tell your students where they are in their learning, how they can reach their goals, and where they can focus or extend their learning. You want to create learners for life by giving your students the opportunity to feel in charge of their learning.

  • Practices are ongoing and part of instruction.

    Focus on where your students are in their learning journey and whether they are progressing toward their goals—not just if they have met them. Formative processes should be integrated into the classroom and fit seamlessly into instruction.

Formative assessments are valuable tools for educators that can ultimately help you improve your students’ learning outcomes.