Focused Formatives

Posted on Posted in Assessment, Education, Feedback, General, Grading, Instruction

Researchers and educators alike have sounded the clarion call for teachers to implement more formative assessment in their classrooms because the research is overwhelmingly clear that the use of formative assessment in the classroom can radically improve student achievement results.  Unfortunately, the very idea of ‘implementing more’ feels like an ‘add on’ to an already full plate.  Teachers have openly expressed frustration:  More assessments?  When do I get time to teach?  I simply can’t keep adding more assessments!  Formative assessment is instruction, and the prevailing laments make it clear that the concept and application of formative assessment is still misunderstood. Instruction without formative assessment is simply coverage of content.

A team of high school math teachers had been struggling for two years to improve their student achievement scores.  They were putting in extra hours, working on Saturdays, meeting in the evenings, and trying different strategies in the classroom, but with only marginal success.  Then someone suggested they try the following formative assessment strategies for one month and track their results:

  • use quick ungraded exit slips to help learners identify and correct errors in understanding;
  • gather as a team to review those frequent errors and co-create instructional interventions;
  • set up all assessments based on targets and not a general list of questions; and,
  • engage learners in using reflection or analysis sheets following each assessment so they could track their own progress target by target through the instructional process.

At the conclusion of that single month, the math teachers on the team shared what they had tried and what they had learned.  Each teacher on the team was able to report that s/he saw significant gains in achievement – more learners passed the summative than had in past units, all of their learners demonstrated improvement, and their typically struggling learners generated some of the best grades on the summative that they had achieved all semester.  When asked, however, if they would keep using the processes, the team offered a hesitant ‘maybe.’  When asked why, after all the time they had been spending and all of the gains they found in a single month, they would only possibly consider using those same strategies again, each member of the team said it was too time consuming and too hard to keep up the pace for lengthy periods of time.

This was alarming, and it clearly points to the dilemma of ‘adding more’ of anything to a teacher’s already bursting workload and frenetic pace.  If teachers are to implement any new strategy, they must have stop doing list to accompany their start doing list.  The list below is by no means comprehensive, but it offers a window into understanding the most significant areas of concern when it comes to adding more formative assessment to classroom instruction.  Ultimately, it is most powerful and supportive when teams sit together to create their own start and stop doing lists.



Stop Doing

Start Doing

Curriculum Stop working alone and following the sequence of the text or curriculum resources wholesale.

  • First of all, there simply isn’t enough time for such a feat.  When ‘pacing’ hijacks learning, everyone – teachers, schools, and students – loses.
  • Second, there is a significant probability that the text materials are not perfectly aligned to standards.  If this is the case, then teachers are spending time making sure learners have mastered unrequired content at the expense of critical standards that are not covered in the materials.


Start working as a team to prioritize standards, unpack the standards into targets, and then align time and resources to the most critical aspects required of the learners.

  • All standards are important, but not all standards are created equal.  Some will require more time and attention and those decisions must be based on what the learners in that setting need.
  • A standard can be overwhelming as a whole.  It must be unpacked into student friendly terms and packaged into manageable chunks for teachers to make the learning feasible.


Instruction  Stop asking learners to raise their hands if they have the answers.

  • This strategy immediately creates a 2-tiered social structure in the classroom. The increasingly visible line between the learners and the non-learners fosters fixed mindsets and prevents risk taking.  Even the “A” learners are only taking calculated risks in order to keep their standing in the top tier of ‘the brainiacs’.   Learning requires risk.
  • Worse, when teachers only call on learners who have their hands raised with right answers, they generate ‘false positives’ in their data regarding whether or not they can continue to move forward.


Start calling on multiple random students to answer a single question.  Do not give responses between answers.  Let the class work out the differences between student -generated responses.

  • This strategy generates more accurate data and engages all of the learners actively and equally.
  • This strategy requires the learners to work harder than the teachers.
  • Finally, when managed in a culture of safety with a commitment to learning, this strategy activates mistakes as a natural learning tool and encourages learners to analyze errors and problem solve.
Stop asking classroom questions that can be answered by a Google search or that simply require a learner to restate information that was already gleaned from reading or listening to teacher input. Start asking probing, rigorous questions that require learners to challenge thinking, defend answers, and analyze their own and each other’s responses.  This kind of questioning requires pre-planning.
Stop operating as the sole provider of feedback, instruction, and quality control regarding mastery. Start activating learners as instructional resources to one another (Wiliam, D., 2011).  This will require co-creating rubrics and practicing scoring so that learners have inter-rater reliability with teachers.
Assessment  Stop assigning daily homework that is worksheet-oriented with many questions that will generate holistic data on overall performance. Start aligning tight, relevant, and manageable practice experiences that will generate target specific data to inform each student’s instructional decision-making.
Stop tracking progress for the learners in isolation and then ‘owning’ the data in private grade books. Start activating learners as the instructional decision makers that they are.  Engage them in tracking their progress target by target and require data from them that qualifies them to make personal and informed instructional decisions.
Communication  Stop grading or marking everything.  This generates data, but it does not generate information because the data are isolated and out of context. Start requiring learners to track their personal progress and prove readiness target by target.
Stop using scores as sufficient feedback on daily work. Start providing feedback that helps learners answer 3 questions:

  • Where am I supposed to be?
  • Where am I on the journey?
  • What strategies and actions can I use to bridge the gap?

(Chappuis, 2011)

Stop averaging scores to find a culminating number for the report card. Start looking at later samples of work to determine how much has been mastered against the given expectations.


Formative assessment is focused instruction.  Formative assessment is not about how well a teacher employs a specific list of strategies during instruction; rather, it is solely about how engaged the learner is in his/her quest for mastery against a given set of standards or expectations as a result of that strategy.   Shirley Clarke, assessment author and expert, states “The acid test of effective formative assessment, however, is not how well written the strategies are, or how many good techniques are in use, but the extent to which pupils are, as a result of our work, actively engaged in thinking, learning and assessing that learning” (Clarke, 2008, p. 11).

Assessment should never be something that is done to learners; rather, assessment must be done with and for learners.  This requires that every assessment be employed and interpreted with the ultimate end user – the learner – in mind.  “Formative assessment is a powerful tool in the hands of both teachers and students and the closer to everyday instruction, the stronger it is.  Classroom assessment, sensitive to what teachers and students are doing daily, is most capable of providing the basis for understandable and accurate feedback about learning, while there is still time to act on it.  And it has the greatest capacity to develop students’ ability to monitor and adjust their own learning” (Chappuis, 2009.  p. 9).

Done well, then, formative assessment should create a sense of hope and efficacy for learners.  It must activate learners to be self-regulated so they can make the strategic and purposeful decisions necessary to remain ‘in the game,’ and continue on to their next identified aspect of the required learning.  In other words, formative assessment works when the learners become self-regulated and can manage all of the following behaviors on their own:

  • Engage in self-observation (monitoring one’s activities), self-judgment (evaluation of one’s performance), and self-reactions (reactions to performance outcomes).
  • Identify their academic strengths and weaknesses.
  • Attribute their successes or failures to factors within their control (e.g., effort expended on a task, effective use of strategies).
  • Establish a repertoire of strategies to tackle the day-to-day challenges appropriately.
  • Maintain a growth mindset.
  • Accept and even seek challenging tasks, and then rehearse and refine knowledge and skills in order to develop a deep understanding of subject matter.

When learners can be self-regulated, teachers experience a sense of hope and efficacy as well.  It is in this space that learning happens and students are working harder than their teachers.



Chappuis, J.  (2009).  Seven Strategies of Assessment FOR Learning.  Portland, OR:  Pearson Assessment Training Institute.

Clarke, S.  (2008).  Active Learning through Formative Assessment.  London:  Hodder Education.  © Shirley Clarke.

Wiliam, D.  (2011).  Embedded Formative Assessment.  Bloomington, IN:  Solution Tree Press.

4 thoughts on “Focused Formatives

  1. Do you have any idea how useful this post was to me, Cass?

    Even as a guy who wrestles with formative assessment on a regular basis, there were major takeways and a-has here.

    So thankful for your thinking….

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