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Formative assessment that closes learning gaps

4 min read


This post is sponsored by the National Council of Teachers in English

Formative assessment, widely considered one of the most effective forms of assessment, is rooted in inquiry. Formative assessment uses feedback between student and teacher, during the course of learning, to inform instruction–identify what the student understands, where he or she is struggling and how curriculum should be adjusted. Schools across the country are tapping into assessment tools and strategies that can help them make better instructional decisions and close learning gaps.

How do formative assessments function in the real world? According to a 2013 paper released by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), Formative Assessment that Truly Informs Instruction, successful formative assessments can be grouped into four strategy categories: Observations, Conversations, Student Self-evaluation and Artifacts of Learning.

  • Observations. The goal of this strategy is to carefully examine students as they’re engaged in activities, identify strengths and challenges, and then use this information to create activities that can support learning. Tools used in observations include field notes, running records or miscue analysis; checklists and observation guides.
  • Conversations. In this scenario, teachers probe for additional information through surveys, interviews or conferences. These discussions include information from general assessments or target specific aspects of the student’s learning.
  • Self-evaluation. Teachers elicit student feedback on their own learning, encouraging and teaching students to monitor their own progress and identify learning needs. Tools used for self-evaluation include exit slips, rubrics and checklists, process reflections and student-led conferences.
  • Artifacts of learning. Here, teachers work individually or collaboratively to review data about students – individual and groups – and outline future instruction. Data may include samples of student work, feedback from parents and other stakeholders, notes from classroom observations and student learning histories, and results from standardized tests.

Together these strategies enable teachers to closely observe and perform ongoing analysis of student progress. The resulting data is invaluable. It provides a roadmap of what’s working, and indicates where more or different instruction might be necessary to support individual learners.

How effective are assessment practices at your school or district? As you prepare for the new school year, it’s a good time to take stock of your assessment strategies and put together a game plan. NCTE offers the following checklist of the benefits of formative assessment to help you implement tools and practices that truly inform instruction and move learning forward.

Formative assessments:

  1. Highlight the needs of each student. They do not view all students as being, or needing to be, at the same place in their learning.
  2. Provide immediately useful feedback to students and teachers. They do not wait weeks or months after assessment to deliver feedback.
  3. Occur as a planned and intentional part of the learning in a classroom. They do not always take place at the same time for each student.
  4. Focus on progress or growth—not just a number, score, or level.
  5. Support goal setting within the classroom curriculum. They do not occur outside of authentic learning experiences.
  6. Answer questions the teacher has about students’ learning. They do not set parameters that limit teacher involvement.
  7. Reflect the goals and intentions of the teachers and the students. They do not look like mini-versions of pre-determined summative assessments.
  8. Rely on teacher expertise and interpretation—not outsiders to score and analyze results.
  9. Occur in the context of classroom life. They are not an intrusion or disruption to the classroom.
  10. Focus on responsibility and care—not accountability.
  11. Inform immediate next steps. They do not focus on external mandates.
  12. Allow teachers and students to better understand the learning process in general and the learning process for these students in particular. They do not exclude teachers and students from assessing through the whole learning process.
  13. Encourage students to assume greater responsibility for monitoring and supporting their own learning. They do not leave students out of the assessment process.
  14. Consider multiple kinds of information, based in a variety of tools or strategies. They do not focus on a single piece of information.



Scaling formative assessment through professional development

Formative assessments are a powerful lever for improving teacher practice and student learning. But sometimes you need a little help getting started or evaluating your current strategies to make them more effective. NCTE Professional Learning Services offers courses designed to help individuals, schools and districts remodel their approach to literacy instruction and grow capacity for effective assessment. NCTE also offers customized programming to schools and districts through its consulting services.