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Building a Blueprint Around Formative Assessment

Written by
April 20th, 2017

Imagine being on a sports team that’s competing in the Olympics. You belong to a very select group of individuals who are physically capable of excelling in a sport at the highest level. One day, the coach decides to cancel all scrimmages and qualifying events. Instead, she declares: “The only event that really matters is the official tournament, so that’s when we’ll compete. Let’s save our energy.”

That would be problematic. How would you know where you stand in relation to the competition? If you haven’t practiced, how would you be prepared for the actual games?

This is the same idea with formative assessment. Like competitions at a scrimmage, this assessment is meant as practice for students to check and measure their level of performance. They inform both the educator and student about their understanding of material and allows both groups to make decisions on where they are and how they should proceed.

This type of assessment for learning, rather than simply assessment of learning as it relates to meeting state or district standards, serves as an instructional guide during the learning process. As Rick Stiggins writes, “Assessment for learning provides both students and teachers with understandable information in a form they can use immediately to improve performance. In this context, students become both self-assessors and consumers of assessment information.”

As students gain better insight into their own learning, they will be able to take ownership over performance and even feel a greater sense of success mapped to their efforts. In this regard, elegantly delivered formative assessment becomes indistinguishable from teaching and learning as these processes become integrated.

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.

Myths & Facts Around Formative Assessment

It might be helpful to explain what formative assessment looks like while dispelling a few common myths. The following list, though not exhaustive, tackles the most common points:

What it is

  • Frequent – Formative assessment must be given throughout the learning process: some informal assessments could be used daily, others several times a week. If assessments are given every three weeks in a nine-week timeframe, there would be insufficient data to make it formative.
  • Directly Related to Skills or Knowledge – Formative assessment is about what students need to know and be able to do. They must directly relate to specific skills and learning targets students are working on and the content they’re learning.
  • Specific in the Feedback Provided – A certain grade on an assessment is too vague to help teachers or students. In fact, grades really are not important in formative assessment—how you understand the learning target or demonstrate mastery of the skills is far more important. What is critical is that students must have a very clear understanding of how they’re doing (based on where they need to go), which requires interaction and feedback from the teacher.

What it isn’t

  • Measuring Recall – Understanding and application goes much deeper than mere recall of facts. This is key in formative assessment. We’re not just looking at how students perform on a test, but whether they understand the underlying concepts and can apply this learning to new contexts. For example, a student may be able to define gravity, but do they understand the principals behind that concept and can they apply it?
  • “Ongoing” Assessments – If you give a lot of quizzes, that doesn’t mean you’re formatively assessing students. It just means you’re giving a lot of shorter-term summative assessments. That’s unless you are using those quizzes as data to inform your teaching and your students about their learning.
  • “Small” Assessments – Formative is not determined by the size of the assessment—it’s more about how it’s used.

The current state of learning requires consistent practice of concepts and delivery of more immediate feedback. Without insight into learning progress, teachers will have a hard time identifying the students who are practicing wrong learning, and providing the right supports or intervention to course-correct for students headed down the wrong path.

Using formative assessments the right way can yield a lot of rich diagnostic information, and establish a clear learning progression for students regardless of their current mastery. With the practice they need, your students will be on the right track to success.

If you’d like to read more about formative assessment, check out our latest whitepaper “Building a Blueprint Around Formative Assessment.”


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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