What is Formative Assessment?

A formative assessment is designed for educators to observe and offer room for improvement or accolades during, or immediately after, the work has been completed.

Assessment and grading are not to be confused. Assessment involves using a wide array of tools and methods to collect information on the progression of a student’s learning with the goal of improving it. Grading is a method of evaluating an individual student’s performance, which can play a role in assessment but can often include factors that do not directly represent learning such as attendance or participation.

Formative assessment allows teachers to identify a student’s strengths and the areas where improvement is needed immediately. Teachers can improve and adapt their instruction to assist students in the manner best suited to their learning style.

Formative assessment involves regular measures of a student’s learning progression throughout a unit of instruction by performing demonstrative activities. Summative assessment is a method of evaluating a student’s level of learning after a unit of instruction by comparing their performance on a unit test or final examination to a predetermined benchmark.

Where Should You Start?

Transitioning from a mindset of evaluating students to assessing students is not without its challenges. The idea of omitting a student’s behavior or attendance from their overall grade is not a typical approach. Shifting your way of thinking, and that of your colleagues, to understanding that a student’s level of learning is not always best represented by their GPA is crucial to a successful implementation of a formative assessment and standards-based grading system. Also, ensuring your school has the right resources in place to support the shift deserves consideration.

Implementing Formative Assessment

Formative assessments do not have the same constraints of a traditional summative examination setting. Proctors, lengthy grading times, and paper-heavy unit tests or final examinations take ample preparation time and resources. Standards-based assessments are continually taking place directly in the classroom, are smaller in scale and more easily managed, and can be leveraged in the classroom, on the playground, through projects, or even via daily quizzes. Some key differences between formative and summative assessments are the frequency at which they take place and the intended outcome.

Identify and Set Learning Goals

Identifying and then solidifying the learning goals you want students to achieve is foundational to any standards-based grading system. Formative assessments must be designed to support students in a specific and measurable way. Any learning goals or assessments that are redundant or do not have a well-identified purpose do not serve the greater goal of assessing learning on an ongoing basis.

Most learning standards are predetermined by the subject at a state or federal level (Common Core or state-wide standards), but custom rubrics can be developed for your school’s chosen method of teaching, or to best suit your students’ learning styles. Whatever the learning targets are, fewer highly refined core concepts are more effective. This allows instructors to tailor their initial instruction of a concept and track consistent and relevant growth. If tracking is spread too far across multiple targets, consistent assessment is not as feasible, resulting in less effective reteaching if it is needed.

Now that we have established why identifying and setting clear learning goals is advisable, it is useful to understand how to elevate these even further. One method of organizing and embedding these learning goals directly into a student’s education is aligning subjects and the associated curricula.

To summarize, formative assessments:

  • Emphasizes learning outcomes
  • Makes goals and standards transparent to students
  • Provides clear assessment criteria
  • Closes the gap between what students know and desired outcomes
  • Provides feedback that is comprehensible, actionable, and relevant
  • Provides valuable diagnostic information by generating informative data

Chapter TwoWhat is Standards-Based Grading?

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