The primary measurement for student growth has long been the standardized test: students’ performance reflects what they’ve learned, determines their own advancement, and provides data for educators to use to improve schools. Or, that’s the idea.
In the current environment, however—with evolving standards and a lack of quality resources aligned to those standards—it’s not surprising that educators have lingering doubts and questions about the best way forward for student assessment. The standardized, end-of-year test has its place, but there are other ways of assessing student learning, too.

Addressing the Dilemma

This is the bottom line: educators are seeking data they can use to improve teaching and learning, but traditional assessment data often comes too little, too late, failing to provide useful information in time to make an impact for teachers and students. Forty percent of districts surveyed by the Council of Great City Schools say that test results weren’t available until the following school year, meaning that students were already well into their next grade level before educators clearly saw the learning gaps of the previous year.

This presents quite a dilemma for teachers seeking to provide immediate intervention and close learning gaps. To fill the data void caused by delayed scores, the Opt-Out movement, and other factors, educators are turning to formative assessment, an ongoing, collaborative process between students and teachers that answers three key questions:

Where Are My Students Going?

The line from point A to point B is not always straight. We know the goals we want students to reach but getting them there takes critical thought and effort. Teachers must carefully design the learning target for a lesson and use it along with the students to aim for and assess understanding. Providing clearly stated learning targets and using examples of quality vs. less-than-quality work can ensure students are headed in the right direction.

Where Are My Students Now?

It’s imperative to measure students’ understanding during the lesson, for every subject throughout the school year. The formative assessment process involves gathering evidence of student learning during instruction. This evidence provides the data for feedback and determines the progress students are making toward the identified learning target. Giving students continual descriptive feedback, teaching them to assess their own progress, and helping them set their own improvement goals are key to student achievement.

How Do I Close the Gap?

Once you’ve defined the gap between where your students are now and where they should ultimately arrive, you can focus on closing that gap. The evidence of student learning is used to identify the next steps that students and teachers must take to advance the understanding of concepts and skills described in standards and in unit goals. Try designing focused lessons to adapt instruction to student needs while learning is in progress, teaching students focused revision, and engaging students in self-reflection.

Formative assessment data can provide continual, immediate feedback on your students’ learning progress, helping you adjust and improve the quality of instruction for guiding your students to success.

[Infographic] Assessment for Learning

Take a look at this infographic, which illustrates these three questions that are central to formative assessment with step-by-step guidance to improve students’ achievement of intended instructional outcomes.


This infographic was developed by Sandra L. Love, Ed.D.