What Are Formative Assessments—and When, Why, and How Can They Improve Learning Outcomes?

By: | 03/02/2021
Categories: Data Culture, Instruction

In the educational assessment world, summative state assessments are—more often than not—front and center. While these summative assessments are an important means of measuring what students know and can do at the end of a year of instruction, they don’t deliver the consistent data about student learning that educators need throughout the school year. For that kind of information, we need formative assessment processes.

Formative assessments help educators uncover what students know about a subject while they are in the process of learning. Finding just the right way to assess learning in progress can seem overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be.

Understanding the five “Ws” and one “H” of formative assessments will make checking in on students far less daunting.


Formative assessments are planned, ongoing processes that educators use to understand and improve student learning outcomes and support students in becoming self-directed learners.

In other words, formative assessment is assessment for learning. While summative assessment is a retrospective snapshot of what a student has learned up to a certain point, formative assessment offers a prospective view. If summative assessment is the conclusion of a learning story, formative assessment is the plot line—the ups and downs, the conflict, and the resolution.

Dylan Wiliam, an authority in 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. We must collect information and act on it! Where is the student on the path to deeper learning? What steps can educators take next to support the student’s progress toward their learning goals? What misconceptions are blocking students from their lightbulb moments? Formative assessment, when done appropriately, can give us the answers to these questions and many others.

The formative assessment process provides actionable evidence of learning in the moment—minute by minute, day by day—to advance learning. What does formative assessment look like? Lots of things! It can take the form of a test and be a collection of targeted questions about a specific learning standard, but it can also appear in less obvious forms such as observations, discussions, projects, self-assessments, hand signals, or think–pair–share activities. Any planned opportunity to check a student’s understanding or knowledge that includes actionable and enacted results can be considered a formative assessment.

“Summative assessment is like a thermometer—it tells us the temperature. Formative assessment is like a thermostat—it tells us the temperature and adjusts accordingly.”


We give students formative assessments because they promote learning. When done well, formative assessments can provide information educators can use to check progress, modify instruction, and be responsive to the instructional needs of students. The data from formative assessment is used to make decisions about next steps in instruction that are likely to be better decisions because of this new, in-the-moment information we now have as a result of our formative assessment processes.


Formative assessment is ongoing and flows naturally with instruction. It’s happening all the time! We use formative assessment when we want to know where our students are, where they need to go, and how to get them there. Once we understand where students are, we can provide them opportunities for enrichment and deeper understanding, or we can alter our instructional approach for those who may benefit from further teaching.


We can use formative assessment processes wherever we’re instructing—in the classroom, in large and small groups, or in virtual learning environments. We check for understanding and provide meaningful feedback wherever we are!


Teachers and students are EQUALLY important when it comes to formative assessments!

The formative assessment process requires a collaborative classroom environment in which teachers and students all benefit from dialogue about learning. Students need opportunities to give and receive feedback, should know where they are in their learning journeys, and should be able to express the need for clarification, reteaching, or an extension of learning. Formative assessment, while incredibly beneficial for teachers, also allows students to be agents of their own learning.


There are several key practices that contribute to the successful use of 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 allows teachers to adjust their instruction and respond in the moment to students’ needs. Formative feedback and flexible instruction plans are efficient ways to help students achieve proficiency in skills or concepts.

Students should be partners in the process.

Don’t keep feedback a secret. Tell students where they are in their learning. Talk to them about how they can reach their goals and where they can focus or extend their learning. We want to create learners for life. Give students the opportunity to feel in charge of their learning.

Practices are ongoing and part of instruction.

Focus on where students are in their learning journey and whether they are progressing toward their goals—not simply whether or not they have met their goals. Formative processes should be integrated into the classroom and fit seamlessly into instruction. We want to be open to student responses and adjust accordingly.

There they are—the five “Ws” and the “H.” Now that we’ve got the facts, don’t miss out on the benefits of the formative assessment process.

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Curriculum Associates’ i-Ready Assessment suite is based on industry-leading research into assessment design and backed by extensive validity evidence. With i-Ready Assessment, sophisticated data is transformed into meaningful, actionable insights that make differentiating instruction a reality for teachers.

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