Teaching Opinion

Response: Formative Assessments Are ‘Powerful’

By Larry Ferlazzo — November 29, 2014 13 min read
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(This is Part One in a two-part series on this topic)

This week’s question is:

What are effective formative assessment techniques?

As I said in a previous popular Classroom Q & A post, Ways To Include Students In The Formative Assessment Process, formative assessment is a critical element in an effective classroom, and is also a buzzword that is often misused.

Today is the first post in a two-part series. Jennifer Serravallo, Andrew Miller, Daniel R. Venables, Brady E. Venables, and Larry Ainsworth are today’s contributors.

In addition, you can listen to a ten-minute conversation on this topic I had with well-known educator and author Nancy Frey. Her work in this area is cited by Andrew is his response.

Before I turn this column over to my guests, I’d like to share a few comments of my own.

Formative assessment is done during the instructional process, as opposed to a summative assessment, which is done at its end. It’s ongoing, and is used by both teachers and students to evaluate evidence so that teachers can made adjustments to their teaching and students to their learning. It’s a critical way for teachers to check students’ understanding and then use the information to guide instruction.

Formative assessment can be almost anything -- teacher observations; review of student work; a quick ungraded quiz; checking for understanding by asking students to give a thumbs-up, thumbs-up or thumb sidewise (always with a teacher statement saying that it’s fine for students to not put their thumbs up); asking students to quickly answer one-to-three key questions as an ungraded “exit slip” to give you on their way out the door (those questions include “On a scale of one-to-five, with one being no confidence at all and five being you get everything we covered today, how would you rate your level of understanding?"; “What questions do you have about what we covered today?"; “Can you please summarize in one-to-three sentences the major point of the lesson today?”).

You might also be interested in The Best Resources For Learning About Formative Assessment.

Now, to today’s contributors:

Response From Jennifer Serravallo

Jennifer Serravallo is a literacy consultant and frequent speaker at national conferences. For years she was a classroom teacher in New York City until she becoming a Senior Staff Developer at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University. She is the author of numerous resources for teachers on reading assessment and instruction, including the AEP award winning Independent Reading Assessment (Scholastic Inc.) for fiction and nonfiction, and the Literacy Teacher’s Playbooks for grades K-2 and 3-6 (Heinemann):

Formative assessments are critical in helping teachers uncover strengths and next steps for each student to power individual, small group, and whole class instruction.

Formative assessments are powerful when they:

1. Match what you want your students to do. For instance, when you want to find out how kids make meaning in a whole book, have them read a whole book with questions pre-planted on sticky notes inside the book. Ask students to respond in writing to your questions and use what they write to identify next steps.

2. Are evaluated. Assessments should be analyzed to help teachers notice strengths and teaching opportunities. . After a teacher evaluates an assessment, It’s also helpful to allow the child an opportunity to evaluate their own work, reflect on their experience, and even articulate the goal themselves. This goal can then be the focus of the individualized, personalized instruction that occurs during conferring and small group lessons, and class trends can help inform whole group instruction.

3. Honor, not detract, from instructional time. Formative assessments should be quick for the teacher to administer, or something students can complete independently. Evaluations of student assessments can be done later by the teacher, not during valuable class time.

4. Foster teacher collaboration. Collaboration among teachers will lead to consistency to each student’s experience. There is real power in teachers coming together during common planning, PLCs, or staff meetings to develop rubrics or work off existing rubrics.

Response From Andrew Miller

Andrew Miller is on the faculty for the Buck Institute for Education and ASCD, and is a regular blogger with ASCD and Edutopia. He can be followed on twitter @betamiller:

Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey have some of the best books and resources surrounding formative assessment. One of the key pieces that’s often overlooked in formative assessment is to know exactly what you are assessing. Teachers often say they are checking in with students, and that checking in needs to be just as intentional as the purpose of the lesson. This is often called “feed up.” If you know you are assessing, then you are halfway there.

The other key is to know that formative assessment can look and sound different. While a draft or written product is an excellent formative assessment, so are questioning techniques to probe student thinking. In the midst of a lesson, teachers can move around the room during collaborative work or independent practice to probe student thinking with questions. Teachers can use the great tools they have, from graphic organizers and technology to spoken responses and project products to assess student learning along the way.

Teachers should also know the difference between a mistake and an error, and see which is present if they spot an issue. A mistake means that cognitively the student may know the process, content or skill, but may have made a mistake while doing it. An error, on the other hand, implies that there is a lapse in student thinking, process, and content. Each has an implication for instruction.

Finally, teachers can conduct error analysis of student work and formative assessments in the midst of a unit. In an error analysis, a teacher uses student work aligned to standards to examine trends and patterns in student understanding. This can lead teachers to see the need for small group or individual intervention. It might also lead to a teacher needing to re-teach content or skills so all students are successful. This is called the “feed forward” process where formative assessments are used to drive instruction, instead of simply assessing learning.

One last piece to understand is that an assessment is not summative until the teacher or student decides it is. There is a strange phenomenon that when we name an assessment as summative it always must be. Not true! In fact, teachers and students can use assessments as tools for learning, and use them to decide whether or not it is a time to evaluate the learning, or to inform it. With these tools, teachers can use formative assessment to reflect on their practice and ensure they do their best to meet the needs of all students.

Response From Daniel R. Venables & Brady E. Venables

Daniel R. Venables is an educational consultant and Founding Director of the Center for Authentic PLCs, an independent consulting firm committed to assisting schools in implementing, developing, leading, and sustaining authentic PLCs. He is the author of How Teachers Can Turn Data Into Action (ASCD, 2014), and The Practice of Authentic PLCs: A Guide to Effective Teacher Teams (Corwin, 2011). He can be reached at the dvenables@authenticPLCs.com or @authenticPLCs on Twitter.

Brady E. Venables is Instructional Technology Coach for Saluda County Schools in Saluda, SC whose innovative and engaging instructional strategies consistently result in high achievement in her students across a wide range of ability levels. She can be reached at bradyven@gmail.com:

In a recent blog post on TeachThought, I discussed sources of formative assessment data that is readily available to teachers in the classroom. Most of these translate into strategies for teachers to use in formatively assessing their students during instruction. A quick recap:


Every time teachers ask their class a question during instruction, they receive data about where their students are in their learning. But sometimes, the same three or four students answer all of the questions (and are usually right). This can produce skewed data that does not represent the class’s mastery as a whole.

To lessen this effect, many teachers have students respond to global questions using individual student whiteboards, allowing teachers to quickly assess the progress of all students during instruction. Other teachers have students place Post-ItsTM or magnets on large charts or graphs indicating their understanding or allow them to ask anonymous questions about the content. Using electronic devices, such as clickers, iPads, and even cell phone polls to measure student understanding is particularly effective (and engaging for students). We discuss specific apps/websites to do this in more detail below.

Student Self-Assessments

Occasionally during instruction, teachers can poll students to see where they think they are in their understanding, particularly during more complex content instruction. To do this, I prefer heads-down voting so students feel safe to respond honestly and unpressured to vote as their classmates are voting. Heads-down voting involves a show of fingers using the following scale (which I leave on a poster in the classroom):

1 = Totally confused.

2 = Shaky on this.

3 = I think I get this.

4 = Got it. Let’s move on.

Tickets-Out-The-Door (Exit Slips)

Many teachers commonly close their lesson with an exit slip for students to answer. These are typically short questions that reflect the content of that day’s lesson. Sometimes the question prompt has to do with how students feel about the material. In either case, a thoughtfully crafted question for a ticket-out-the-door provides teachers with a brief check for understanding. The teacher can review these quickly, and useful information can be gleaned about what students really got out of that class. It’s a great way to stack the deck in your favor for tomorrow’s lesson.

My wife is a high school biology teacher who uses a variety of teacher-friendly formative assessment strategies in the digital realm. While the two of us may be a bit old-school meets new-school in our methods, on this we agree: one characteristic that separates good teaching from masterful teaching is the teacher’s routine use of formative assessment techniques that are embedded in every lesson.

We also agree that, in order to keep today’s students meaningfully engaged as we assess their understanding in our classrooms, we must hit them how they’re wired: technologically. Not only are the following tech-based methods of formative assessment engaging to the students, but they are uniquely effective for the teacher. Some of the apps generate live spreadsheets and graphs that inform the teacher of student understanding in real time.


Teachers generate multiple choice or free response quizzes that students can take via cell phone, computers, or tablet. Graphs of student responses can be automatically generated, instantly.


Similar to socarative with slightly different features and teacher tools.


Teachers can have students view short video lessons and answer questions as they interact with the video. This allows for engaging, constant formative assessment in a technical lesson.


Students log into a classroom digital notebook to respond to a prompt or an essential question. Their responses are akin to Post-ItsTM added to a “pad” on which students can see their peers’ responses and build off each other’s ideas in real time.


Students construct mind maps to connect ideas across disciplines or standards. Teachers can monitor and add to the connections students are able to make.

However teachers choose to formatively assess student understanding in real time during instruction, the most important point is that they do it some way, using any of the analog or digital strategies we’ve tried to highlight here.

Response From Larry Ainsworth

Larry Ainsworth is an education consultant who has authored 15 published books on best practices related to standards, assessment, curriculum, and instruction. His latest book, Common Formative Assessments 2.0: How Teacher Teams “Build the Highway” to Aligned Assessments, will be published by Corwin in December. He can be reached at larryainsworth13@gmail.com or @AinsworthLarry:

Formative assessments for learning are essential to improving the effectiveness of teaching and to meeting the diverse learning needs of all students.

Recently published educational research continues to underscore the effects that formative assessment, when effectively implemented, can have on raising student achievement levels. In Visible Learning (2009), world-renowned educational researcher John Hattie explains that any professional practice that can achieve a 0.40 effect size equates to approximately one year of growth in student learning. Formative evaluation ranks #4 among all positive influences on student learning, producing an overall effect size of 0.90--equivalent to over two years of student gains within a single academic school year. The effective use of feedback ranks #10 with an effect size of 0.73 and an almost similar result--almost two years of student growth.

One of the most effective ways educators can use formative assessments is by collaboratively creating common formative assessments with grade-level or course-level colleagues. Common formative assessments (CFAs) are aligned pre-and post-assessments for learning that are designed by a grade-level or course-level team of educators to assess student understanding of the particular learning intentions and success criteria currently in focus within a curricular unit of study.

CFAs afford teacher teams a clear lens through which to see their instructional impact on student learning. The assessment questions directly match the levels of cognitive rigor within the unit learning intentions (derived from standards or learning outcomes). Accompanying success criteria describe explicitly what students are to demonstrate in their assessment responses to show they have achieved the learning intentions. Knowing what they are to learn and how their understanding will be evaluated, students are empowered to take a more active role in their own learning.

Common formative assessments are a great way for educators and students to receive and utilize resulting feedback to correctly interpret student understanding and adjust instruction accordingly. The inferences educators make about student learning can only be as good as the evidence they collect. And that evidence is only as good as the source from which it comes. Understanding this, teacher teams strive to ensure their assessment questions are of high quality.

Thanks to Jennifer, Andrew, Brady, Daniel and Larry for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post. I’ll include responses from readers in Part Two.

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