Janet Malone

Janet Malone is former director of professional development for the Poway Unified School District in California. She has experience as a teacher, principal, and central office administrator.

Are Your Assessments Good, Not So Good, or . . . Great?

“What does a good formative assessment look like?”

“Can you please show us some examples?”

These are the types of questions that often surface as collaborative teams in PLC schools delve into the work of developing common formative assessments.  Ironically, the answer to these questions lies not in the assessment tool itself, but in how the tool and the information it generates are used.  In other words, formative assessment is not a tool or an event, but a variety of strategies that involve acting on the assessment data to improve learning.

Laurie Shepard defines the characteristics of a good formative assessment as “an assessment carried out during the instructional process for the purpose of improving teaching or learning. . . What makes formative assessment formative is that it is immediately used to make adjustments so as to form new learning” (Shepard, 2008).

So, in answer to our original questions, teachers already have a multitude of potential good formative assessments in their toolboxes . . . quizzes, short written responses, classroom activities, and/or homework assignments.  If the assessment is administered for the purpose of giving feedback to students and teachers in a risk-free (non-evaluative) setting and students  engage in additional practice for revising their learning prior to subsequent evaluation, the assessment qualifies as a good formative assessment.  If, however, the assessment is administered, graded, and returned to students without opportunity for intervention, extension, and/or additional demonstration of learning, the assessment would fall in the category of not so good.

Research in recent years has consistently highlighted the power of formative assessment, or as it is often called, assessment for learning.  In fact, Dylan Wiliam points out, “When implemented well, formative assessment can effectively double the speed of student learning” (Wiliam, 2007).   Certainly, if formative assessment has the potential to double the speed of student learning, that would put it in the great category as a high-impact strategy.   What, then, are the conditions for great formative assessment?

Teams of teachers work interdependently to create common formative assessments by:

  1. Analyzing their content standards to identify and agree on a limited number of essential standards and learning targets . . . those that students must master to ensure continued academic success
  2. Creating assessment maps for each unit of study that include planned flexible time for intervention, sequence effective learning of the essentials and provide consistent formative assessment experiences prior to summative, evaluative assessments
  3. Agreeing on student-friendly versions of the essential standards and sharing them with students
  4. Collaboratively developing short, targeted formative assessments that directly align to the essential standards being learned and match what has been taught
  5. Analyzing the assessment results, as a team, to pinpoint specific learning problems and agreeing on instructional actions to address such problems with those students who need additional time and support
  6. Taking action in a timely fashion . . . providing students with feedback, more practice, and additional opportunities to demonstrate their learning . . . prior to summatively evaluating student mastery of the essential standards and targets

In summary, a good—or even better, great—formative assessment is not one that is purchased or looks a certain way.  It is one that is used by teachers and students to enhance and increase learning.  What, then, will you do to ensure that the formative assessments you are using can be considered great?


“Formative Assessment” by Laurie Shepard in The future of assessment: Shaping teaching and learning (C. Dwyer, editor), New York: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. (p. 279-303)

“Changing Classroom Practice” by Dylan Wiliam in Educational Leadership, Dec. 2007/Jan. 2008 (Vol. 65, #4, p. 36-41)


Brandy Ducote

The school I am employed at is always talking about formative assessments and I wondered if mine were "up to par" and I now know that they are not and that there is a lot of improvement needed on my part. I am confident I can improve because, after reading this article, I now know how to improve. The major obstacle I have is that, being an elective teacher, the students feel that they should not have to work hard in my class. How do overcome that?

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jwar and caz,
We have this real world vs. classroom world discussion in our school, but concerning late work and how to balance responsibility with ensuring that students are given enough opportunities to meet standards. I like the use of formative assessments because they do not have to be given a "grade" but show students where they are in learning a skill or concept. And I like being able to give students the experience of working through a process until they get it right. They can be given a few points for completing the assessment and revising their work. For actual graded assessments, maybe instead of giving the grade up front, highlighting the areas that need revision then giving the grade when the revision has been completed would help students through the process and appease the disagreeing colleague? It might seem like less of a "reward" since students won't know what their grade is until after revision. Just a suggestion. ~MissL

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I use a lot of anecdotal and running records during my small group literacy guided reading block. I believe this is a great way to use formative assessments to help guide your small groups using the literacy model. With this, we are able to assess our students on a daily basis. At my school, we abililty group and I teach the lower reading group so I have two literacy coaches that come in during my literacy block. These assessments have been great! It allows us to differientiate our instruction for our specific reading groups. It allows us to see very quickly which child needs help in what area of the reading process. I have seen a huge gain in my students. Anecdotal and running records are quick and do not cause any extra work on the teacher. Great formative assessments!

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I don't think that this is a not-so-good practice at all; I do on occasion offer the same opportunity. I just wonder about your work-load as well as the issue of student's becoming too dependant on that opportunity rather than trying their best the first time around. I'm sure you already have a pretty good idea of your student's who overly abuse the second chance opportunity as opposed to your students who make silly mistakes or some other kind of misunderstanding and truly would benefit from this practice. For me, the "down the road" question for these students as we prepare them for college and the work force would be, "How many second chances do you realistically think you will get as an adult at a job before you get reprimanded, fired or some other consequence that could have repurcusive effects on you and/or your family?" Just some food for thought. Thanks, ~caz

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I think it all depends on what you are teaching and the performance level of your students. I teach a 6th grade LD Self contained classroom and I find that doing formative testing isn't beneficial because they don't have the skills to do what is required. Instead, I progress monitor my students to show administrators their improvements which I believe is a better representation of the work they can do.

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I share the sentiment that formative assessment should be used as a tool for enhancing student learning and teacher practice. Nevertheless, I teach in a culture where any form of assessment is seen as a test that students can either pass or fail. Consequently, this creates tremendous anxiety for students whenever they here the term assessment.
Apart from staff development workshops, what other strategies can be implement with my staff to change this type of culture and to reduce the levels of anxiety students experience before this type of assessment?

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I think Formative assessments are a great way to tell if your students are learning the skills being taught. However, I do think an assessment should be fair and made up of several variety of questions. I make my assessments by being sure to include short answers, true and false, defining vocabulary,and multiple choice. Creating tests this way gives the children an opportunity to do well, and be able to complete the test without struggling. After tests are graded and given back I also let children fix thier mistakes. As a class we go over each question preparing them for future tests.

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Please forgive my spelling errors. This is my first time blogging. Is there a way to edit? Thank you for your guidance.

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I offer students the opportunity to make corrections on all graded assignments in hopes that they will learn from thier mistakes. The students that take advantage of this can earn partial credit for each corrected answer. I belive that when we make mistakes, we should learn from them; this is a chance to grow. I work with fellow teacher who disagree with my philosophy. Would you say that offering chances to make corrections on already graded assignments appropriate practice? I wonder if this is "good" or "not-so-good" assessment practice.

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I use anecdotal notes as part of formative assessments to identify my students' strength to build on them in order to help them overcome the barriers they face .

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I think that formative assessments are a great tool for both teachers and students. They can be used to guide instruction so that teachers can plan accordingly. This has enabled me to group students into homogeneous or heterogeneous groups, depending on the activity. It has also forced me to slow down on a concept if many students or struggling, or simply review a concept if the majority of students are picking it up quickly. While it can be a time saver in some ways, I also find it difficult to keep up with the the actual assessment and grading process. I am finding it very useful to make these assessments short and to the point and this is helping me tremendously!

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This Week’s “Links I Should Have Posted About, But Didn’t” | Larry Ferlazzo’s Websites of the Day…

[...] Are Your Assessments Good, Not So Good, or…Great? is another short post I’m adding to the same “The Best…” list. [...]

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The Best Resources For Learning About Formative Assessment | Larry Ferlazzo’s Websites of the Day…

[...] Are Your Assessments Good, Not So Good, or…Great? [...]

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Are Your Assessments Good, Not So Good, or…Great? | AllThingsPLC | Student Services for each learner | Scoop.it

[...] Are Your Assessments Good, Not So Good, or…Great? | AllThingsPLC Laurie Shepard defines the characteristics of a good formative assessment as “. . . an assessment carried out during the instructional process for the purpose of improving teaching or learning. . . What makes formative ... Source: www.allthingsplc.info [...]

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I recently started formative assessments, "pre quizzes", in my Spanish classes. What I do is have 2-3 pre-quizzes before the actual quiz or test. The students take the same quiz I create, after viewing the assessment, immediately. The day after notes or even before the notes. The formative reflects what they WILL need to know. My question is this: I use the same formative 3 times and I only made minor adjustments and challenges for students who have already mastered the formative. Is that an effective method? Using the same formative as a goal for students to master before the actual graded assessment? Or should formatives quizzes change everytime you take them? I feel giving the students the most difficult formative everytime pushes them and raises the bar. And since they are not graded for points, it is more of a tool.

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