Best Practices in Formative Assessment

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by Scott Sterling

The “greats” do it without even thinking. Those who are the most organized write it into their lesson plans. The rest of us have good days and bad days with it, and that’s OK.

I’m talking about formative assessment, the great equalizer in educational practice—namely because it forces you not to equalize your instruction.

To paraphrase Dr. Robert Marzano in his 2006 book Classroom Assessment & Grading that Work, formative assessments produce the most powerful effect on student learning. Out of formative or summative assessment, the formative type has the more powerful research behind it.

But we knew that already. Studies and theories are one thing. The question is this: how do we make it as powerful as it can be while we’re in the classroom?

Formative assessment doesn’t take just one form

Effective formative assessment is not just asking questions of the class in the middle of a lesson or requesting a show of hands. It can take many forms, and it’s most effective when you use as many of the forms as possible, including:

  • Conversations
  • Observations
  • Student self-evaluation, like exit slips and surveys
  • Artifacts, perhaps in the form of a portfolio
  • Anything else you can come up with that has the goal of finding out what students have learned so far


Students should know that it’s happening

A common misperception in formative assessment is that it’s almost a trick you need to play on students to get authentic results. The thinking behind that is if students know you’re giving them a “test,” they will do anything to “pass,” skewing what you might learn about their progress.

That’s silly. Just like everything we do here at Instructional Empowerment, we believe that students should be treated as partners in their success. They should know the goals of the lesson and be familiar with the scales with which they (and you) will be assessing their learning.

When using a formative assessment strategy, be sure to tell students about it, including which goals and scales are being incorporated, so that they can track and analyze their progress just as you’re doing.

Share your analysis

Related to the whole preceding “trick” theory, the misperception is that you clandestinely modify the upcoming instruction, based on your analysis of the assessment, without students knowing what is going on. The less they know, the more authentic the process will be.

Again, that’s silly.

As partners, students deserve to know what you think about their performance, either in individual meetings or whole-group discussions. Tell them what they’re doing well—and where they’re falling short—in terms of goals and scales. Then, share the next steps in the process so that they can get where they need to be (or further).

If they aren’t surprised, you’ll generate more engagement. Humans are a competitive species by nature. If there is a ladder, we want to climb it.

What other practices have gotten you over formative assessment hurdles? Share your thoughts with your colleagues in the Comments section.

For more information about the Marzano Center’s new Essentials for Achieving Rigor initiative and how it can improve your instructional practice, visit this new page and download Teaching for Rigor: A Call for a Critical Instructional Shift by Robert J. Marzano and Michael D. Toth.

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