Thanks to the support I’ve received from various members of my learning community (particularly Julie Kopp, Theresa Gray, and Jennifer Borgioli), I’ve discovered much more about the power of formative assessment practices in recent years. Reflecting on questions like these helped me begin shaping a vision for the sort of assessment work that I wanted to begin myself and support other educators around.

The realizations below guided much of that thinking. Next week, I’ll share some of the findings from the work I’ve been able to do with teachers and students in a variety of schools and settings.

  • Formative assessment is a practice that immediately informs teachers about each student’s progress toward clear learning targets.
  • In order for formative assessment to provide meaningful information, it’s important to align the type of assessment we give to the selected learning targets.
  • Formative assessment happens during instruction.
  • Beginning this work inside of classrooms, using practices and tools that teachers and students currently value could help to establish the fact that ownership lies with them, not inside of district offices, with coaches, or with staff developers. As teachers begin to participate in inquiry relevant to improving student learning, the evidence they gather can begin to guide their decision-making. In my experience, this helps alignment happen in a natural and meaningful way that connects with past practice while improving future practice.
  • When teachers capture data during instruction, this enables them to speak to students’ strengths and struggles as learners with a far greater level of specificity than other measures might allow. Using tools like checklists, annotated records, rubrics, transcripts, conference logs, and documented feedback empowers teachers and learners to notice, reflect upon, and document trends that can be responded to immediately and shared in a variety of other settings.
  • Formative assessment should provide a level of information that has not been previously captured by state assessments, benchmarks, or other measures.
  • Formative assessment that works improves teacher practice and student learning in ways that engage and empower them. It does not add to the “testing mess” or the stress and confusion stirred up in the wake of it. In fact, it inspires the understanding that assessment and testing are two different things.
  • When assessment is working, the power is not in a tool or a test. It lies within teachers and students. They use their expertise to define goals collaboratively, identify learning targets, establish the criteria for what quality work might look like or achieve, and most importantly….study the effects of their efforts and intervene appropriately. This work not only improves practice–it enriches their expertise as well.


  1. Angela –
    been toying with the idea of conference logs – where would I be able to find good examples? I keep the ideas from our current conferences in my head and on the student conference sheets, right now, but feel that I could really benefit from my own log —
    Thanks 🙂

  2. Kristin Smith Reply

    Formative assessment that works improves teacher practice and student learning in ways that engage and empower them. It does not add to the “testing mess” or the stress and confusion stirred up in the wake of it. In fact, it inspires the understanding that assessment and testing are two different things…..

    Interesting idea that all practitioners should reflect upon as we move through our careers … is what we are doing with kids “good” because it looks like the test the state values so much? or are we doing good things with kids to provide them with opportunities to think, assess, and evaluate situations and ideas for themselves?

    Developing ideas and assessments that have value beyond the numbers reported is at the heart of truly educating children to life long, independent thinkers and questioners ….

    Is it possible to create assessments that guide instruction without “teaching to the test”?

    Resoundingly, I would answer YES!, but it takes time, commitment and a passion for true achievement! Nothing of value can be produced without these qualities.

  3. Hmmmm…so is teaching to the test a “bad thing” Kristen? I’m curious to know what that might really mean.

    Pam…there are many ways to create conference logs! I’ve seen teachers take different approaches with this, depending on the information they hope to gather, study, and share. I’ll bring some samples the next time that I see you and we can talk with everyone at Studio about how to approach this. I can share what I use there and elsewhere too.

    Good to see you ladies here : )

  4. Kristin Smith Reply

    Good question … I’m thinking that having tests that benchmark and record student progress (or lack thereof) are necessary … it is in how teachers prepare their stduents for and use the results of these tests ….

    Imagine a world (recently discussed with a colleague at the high school …) where report cards did not contain numbers, but instead, a narrative summary of each student’s unique strengths and needs … where reports from the state about our kids reported directly on their performance and growth from year to year…..

    OK, snap back to reality and realize that numbers and grades are borne out of necessity.

    In order to truly prepare kids to succeed in the future, we really need to look at the skills tested by those tests and compare them to the skills the kids need to possess to lead successful lives.

    It is possible to prepare kids for the real future they face and for the tests the states mandate them to perform on …. Just not with practice test after practice test after practice test as some teachers do …..

  5. Are numbers and grades borne out of necessity? I wonder if there are schools who have report cards in place similar to the ones you describe? Good questions….

  6. thanks – I would like that. Am working on a Regents Listening right now – so much less painful that working on Lit. analysis….but was thinking about how if I logged things for kids I could begin to see patterns.

  7. Pingback: Information about Formative Assessments « Formative Coaching

  8. In my old school, we had many discussions about report cards and their functions. One issue that we never resolved was how to show growth with children who were way below grade level. So take, for example, Tommy who is in fifth grade but reads on a first grade level. He gets an F, right? But the thing is, Tommy has been working really hard and has actually moved all the way from a first grade reading level to a third. Still an F? How do his parents know about this change? Just another example of how grades are not good indicators of student progress.

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