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5 Critical Steps to Doing Formative Assessments

Written by
March 2nd, 2017

Formative assessments can make a big difference in the classroom.

The evidence proves it. Many studies show that the average effect size of the impact of formative assessment on standardized tests is 0.4 to 0.7. The change in “effect size” is considered as going from moderate to strong.

That’s a home run in the world of treatment effects. To give you an idea of its impact, that’s equivalent to moving a student from the 25th percentile the 50th percentile. This effect size is huge—in fact, it’s larger than most of those for other educational interventions.

Yet, some of you might be wondering, “This sounds great, but how can we apply this in the classroom?” What steps do we need to take to provide the right guidance to our students?

Here are 5 critical steps to guide the process of formative assessments in your classroom. These steps will help us understand what students really need to know and be able to do.

1. Indicate how students are moving toward proficiency of a standard

The skills and knowledge associated with the standard need to be clear and obtainable. While all students need to be moving toward the same target, the skills can be altered so that certain students are working on a certain set of skills while others are working on more advanced skills.

Students should also know where they are on the learning continuum (i.e., they know the target). With formative assessments, it’s essential that students know where they are in relationship to what needs to be accomplished, which should be directly related to the standard.

If you have a learning progression, and the students know what that looks like, then the formative assessments will let them know what comes next. This will give them the context they need to understand why they’re working on specific tasks (i.e., they will be able to see that if they don’t know A, then they won’t be able to do B).

2. Identify the current level of understanding in relation to expectations

Effective formative assessments should provide a clear understanding of what specific skills certain students are weak in (or simply do not possess) or if there are any misunderstandings. Research tells us that if students have a basic misunderstanding of a concept, they will need approximately 150% more time and effort to unlearn and relearn.

Formative assessments should not just look at what we taught yesterday or today, but assess concepts and knowledge that students should have developed that are essential for students to truly understand current teaching. It may be necessary to actually review or re-teach concepts that should have been mastered at previous grade levels.

In general, formative assessments should provide a clear picture of what gaps exist between what students currently know and can do and what you as the teacher need to help students with to get to the next level.

3. Provide specific and appropriate feedback

This is the most important element of formative assessments. The feedback should give the student a sense of what has been achieved as well as areas of improvement. The feedback will honor the work and learning a student has accomplished while identifying areas that the student needs to work on.

Just telling students where they are, what they have accomplished, and so forth doesn’t mean that they have internalized those statements. Students need to discuss your feedback and make sure that they know all of these things. They should be able to make statements such as:

  • Right now, I know how to…
  • Next I need to work on…
  • I have to be able to … before I can move on…

Further research shows that prompt oral feedback is most effective as an element of formative assessment. (General statements like “good job” are not effective as formative assessment.) It should also be noted that feedback needs to be given promptly, as formative assessments are NOT effective if the students receive feedback on the assessment days after.

4. Engage students in the process

The use of formative assessments provides a great opportunity for students to become actively involved in their own learning. Formative assessments allow students to know more about their learning than almost any other technique we can use. The constant flow of data is essential if students are to see themselves as your partner in their learning.

An important part of formative assessment is that students acquire the vocabulary necessary to communicate with other students about their learning. If students know where they are and where they are going, then they have some of the skills necessary to help other students in that process. The great thing is that with this sense of shared responsibility, making everyone a part of learning.

According to the US Department of Education, students should track and monitor their own learning to improve student achievement. They can only do this if they know what that target is, know where they are, and where they need to go—all of which is part of formative assessment.

5. Provide time, support, and instruction in order for students to adjust, implement, and process their learning

Not having enough time and support is the one thing most of us complain about. As a part of the US Department of Education study, the third element that supports improved achievement is to follow direct instruction by time to practice and apply with support from the teacher.

Once an assessment is given, students should have time to practice. The natural inclination is to move forward because of everything that needs to be “covered,” but if formative assessments are going to be successful, we need to go slow first before going fast.

We should also use the formative assessment data to clarify misconceptions. If we know almost immediately that students don’t fully understand a specific concept, then the material needs to be clarified in that moment. The longer a misunderstanding stays in a child’s mind, the longer it will take to adjust thinking.

Before moving on, use your discussions with students to review what has been taught (i.e., this is essentially instructional reflection). Engage students in that conversation and make sure the discussion revolves around the target established by the standard.

Final Thoughts

By using at least one formative assessment daily enables you to evaluate and assess the quality of the learning that is taking place in your classroom and answer these driving questions: How is this student evolving as a learner? What can I do to assist this learner on his path to mastery?

Using formatives the right way can yield a lot of rich diagnostic information, and establish a clear learning progression for your students, regardless of their current mastery.

If you’d like to learn more about assessments, check out our newest eBook: A Complete Guide to Balanced Assessment Systems.


Illuminate Education is a provider of educational technology and services offering innovative data, assessment and student information solutions. Serving K-12 schools, our cloud-based software and services currently assist more than 1,600 school districts in promoting student achievement and success.

Ready to discover your one-stop shop for your district’s educational needs? Let’s talk.

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