It seems we spend a big chunk of the school year focused on summative assessments. From the big end-of-unit and end-of-semester tests to state standardized testing, this drive toward the final test can leave many educators feeling pressured to hurry through the curriculum to make sure they cover all of the material. Taking a moment to check students’ learning along the way with formative assessments is worth the time.

These informal checks make sure students are keeping pace with a lesson. Sometimes, they may reveal that students don’t understand what they need to in order to move on, and other times you may be surprised to find that you can skip ahead. Either way, using formative assessments regularly throughout lessons makes sure students have achieved full comprehension by the end and will be prepared to ace those summative assessments!

A Powerful Tool for Guiding Instruction

Formative assessments are the only type of assessment that can have an immediate impact on student learning. Whether it’s a traditional quiz, an exit ticket or a short essay, the goal of formative assessments is to gain insight into students’ mastery of the material as they’re learning it. These quick check-ins help educators pivot as needed to make sure students are on track. The results of a formative assessment may mean re-teaching or reviewing material with the whole class. Or, the results may reveal that one group of students is leaping ahead while another group is still working through the basics. In that case, lessons may need to be adjusted so that instruction can be differentiated appropriately for each group of students.

Formative assessments make teaching more fluid, and that can be challenging for teachers. After all, who likes to have their carefully laid plans derailed? But if a quiz or student-reported assessment of understanding reveals that the majority of students just don’t get how colons and semi-colons are used differently, how effective is the rest of the lesson going to be? Not very. With a formative assessment process in place, rather than moving on to how to use commas, a teacher can model again the use of colons and semi-colons, pair students up to practice using them, and then have a class discussion about the correct answers to the practice questions. This kind of immediate instructional adjustment enables teachers to diagnose, address, and correct students’ misconceptions immediately instead of letting them become embedded and more difficult to correct.

Making Formative Assessments a Habit

For many teachers, the formative assessment process will take some getting used to. These quick assessments may feel like constant interruptions at first, but with practice, teachers will come to rely on the data they provide. They’ll also quickly see the impact that formative assessments can have on improving student outcomes.

Here are three ways that educational leaders can support the consistent use of formative assessments.

  1. Provide teachers with professional development on how to effectively develop, administer and assess formative assessments. Then support that learning through ongoing coaching and professional learning communities.
  2. Allow for flexibility and choice. Make sure teachers are aware that the use of formative assessments is a priority and implement policies and procedures that encourage their use. But let teachers do the rest. Don’t mandate types of assessments or how frequently they should be administered. Let teachers determine what works best for themselves and their students.
  3. Incorporate the use of formative assessments into teacher performance standards and indicators.

Empowering Students with Formative Assessments

The ultimate goal of formative assessments is to help students improve their academic achievement. But they’re also a powerful way to build the “learning to learn” skills that are needed for success in college and careers. Formative assessments require students to continually reflect on their learning. Peer and self-assessments strengthen students’ collaboration, analytic and problem-solving skills as well as their confidence and autonomy as learners.

Student’s poor performance on summative assessments is really a failure of formative assessments. The consistent use of formative assessments during lessons and units ensures that every student is mastering concepts and content along the way. They affirm that learning is a process, help to create a supportive learning environment, and improve learning outcomes.

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