Formative Assessment Gems


My own formative assessments have changed over the years. Being able to quickly assess where a student is at in relation to the standard helps me make decisions. These decisions impact classroom lessons and activities. I’ve always been a fan of exit slips and quick review checkpoints that see if students understand what was discussed during a particular lesson. Most of these take on a paper form. In fact, one year my district’s math committee spent almost an entire year working on these types of formative assessments. I still use some of these and find them valuable. These exit slips are usually split into a half-sheet with a small amount of questions related to the skill for that day. Students complete it in around 5-10 minutes.

This year I’ve been relying a bit more on digital formative assessments. These projects involve having students explain their math reasoning through some type of digital recording.  Lately I’ve been using Recap (Thanks Kirk!) and Explain Everything for this. Students generally follow a rubric and submit their file to me via SeeSaw or Showbie. In my experience, audio or video formative checkpoints are much more valuable than other formative assessments. Not only can I view these checkpoints at a later time, I can also check for vocabulary use and hidden misconceptions that a student may have adopted along the way. I generally can’t uncover that as easily with an exit card.  Moreover, students and parents can review their recordings over time.

I believe all formative assessments have some type of value. The extent of the value depends on how it the checkpoint is used. Blending formative assessment strategies has its advantages. I want to be able to gauge student understanding and give feedback that helps connect understanding. This isn’t always possible with standard curriculum guides.   Looking beyond the traditional blackline masters may yield better results.

Assessments and Growth Mindset


School has been in session for over month and many of my classes had a unit assessment last week.  The district adopted math program has 10-12 unit checkpoints (depending on the grade level) for the school year and each assessment covers specified math strands.  These assessments are designed to assess understanding and include an open response that emphasizes students’ conceptual understanding and math communication skills.  The entire unit assessment takes about 50+ minutes to complete.

I usually try to administer and grade all the tests on the same day.  This doesn’t always happen.  Before passing the tests back to the students the class generally has a discussion about certain problems that were missed more than others.

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What’s up with problem eight ?

We also have celebrations as a class.  During the class discussion we don’t blame, but reflect on what the numbers might mean.  This idea has taken time to cement and required a bit of modeling.  Based on the results I might even teach a brief mini lesson to help address and reduce misconceptions.  This is also an opportunity for students to analyze their own test and look for correlations.  Afterwards, students are given a sheet to reflect on their own analysis. Students are asked to review their assessment and give feedback on their own performance.

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Click for file

After the students fill out the above sheet they visit the teacher for a brief conference.  These last a quick 2-3 minutes and include a time to check-in with the student. We have a conversation about the student’s reflection and look for opportunities to improve in the future.  This is also a time to set some possible goals.  The sheet is glued into the student’s math journal and can be a document that the student will look back on as the year progresses.

I feel like the process of analyzing, reflecting and setting goals is important.  I believe it reinforces a growth mindset mentality, but it also has me wondering about the role of different assessments in the learning process.  I’d say about 95% of what is used at the elementary level is formative.  I could see how that changes as students progress through middle and high school.  Feedback and the possibility to make positive strides towards improvement can often be utilized with most assessments, regardless if you label it formative or summative.  If a school truly embraces a growth mindset model, what role do summative assessments play? I believe that summative assessments have a role.  I’m just thinking that they may be perceived a bit differently if a school emphasizes a growth mindset model.

image credit: Woodley Wonderworks 

Low-Risk Formative Assessments – Kahoot

Using Kahoot as a Formative Assessment Tool
Using Kahoot as a Formative Assessment Tool

Over the past few weeks I’ve focused in on using low-risk formative assessments in the classroom.  I continue to find that these types of assessments bring out the best in students. I want my students to feel comfortable enough in class to take an educated guess without negative judgement.  Moreover, I want my students to be able to use the formative assessment and teacher feedback to improve their mathematical understanding.

In the past I would give my students a paper exit card.  A typical exit card would have a few questions on a half-sheet of paper.  The questions would relate to the concepts covered in class.  I’d gather up the sheets and write feedback on the pieces for students to read during the next class. I also found that some students weren’t willing to take a risk to showcase their skills.  They might leave a question blank or put a question mark in the blank space.  I wanted to find a way to increase the willingness of the students to take a risk.

I came across the website after following a Tweet by Matt.  I explored it a bit further and found it to be very similar to Socrative.  I enjoyed using Socrative with my classes and thought that Kahoot had some potential to be used for formative assessment purposes.

After creating a teacher account I decided to browse lessons on the site. I was surprised as there were over 160 thousand quizzes in the lesson bank. Many of the lessons were shorter quizzes, but I found some to use with my math classes. The students used the iPads in the class to go to and enter the PIN. Many of the students had no problem with this.  As long as their device had an Internet browser, students could use a tablet, computer or phone to access the quiz.  Once the students all joined the quiz I started it from my computer.  The questions popped up on the whiteboard for students to see.  You can add your own pictures to the quiz.  I found this to be helpful as I took pictures of the classroom and imported them into the quiz.

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As seen on the whiteboard

Students are able to see the whiteboard and read the question.  Students answer questions on their device. Their device looks like the image below.

From student device
From student device

Students receive a certain amount of “Kahoots” for answering the questions in a certain time period.  I’m a fan of rewarding quality over speed in math so I give students the maximum time allotted.  This can be changed when creating questions.   Students pick an answer and at the end of the countdown the correct answer is revealed.  During this time I can stop the class to check the answer choices that were made.

Reviewing student choices
Reviewing student choices

This can be a great time to clear up student misconceptions as you can see all the responses without names.  I’ve had lengthy math discussions after completing this activity with students. I felt the conversations were rich and gave insight to student understanding.  When finished I opted to download a report for later perusal.  The report gives all the student response and how long each student took to respond to the answers.  Both of these are valuable to me as I can use the student responses to group students and differentiate instruction going forward.

Note:  I’ll still be using general exit cards in class, but I’m finding a variety of tools useful in collecting data and providing feedback to students. I’m finding that diversifying formative assessment measures has its benefits.  It also gives students a variety of options to showcase mathematical understanding.


Homework and Learning


Homework has been a contentious subject in the field of education.  Many people in education have been/are willing to talk about the subject; see examples 1, 2, 3.  Beyond the annual science fair and occasional project, homework in elementary school is generally used to practice or reinforce skills learned in school.  Reinforcing skills through application is important, although the homework that is often assigned at the elementary level tends to be worksheet based.  I’ve found this to be especially evident in math classes.  Beneficial math homework has value and can extend the learning experience.  I’ve observed some amazing educators assign math homework that stretches their students’ thinking.  I believe that this type of homework isn’t the norm, although I wish it was.  At times, I’ve seen math homework being used as a motivator, but there are definitely myths related to homework. Some teachers use homework as part of a student’s grade.  This can be problematic, as the environment outside of school can play a role in whether the homework is done and if it’s actually accurate.

Adam @agholman wrote a Tweet that seemed to be spot-on when talking about grades.  I connected the Tweet below with the idea of homework and motivation.

“But they won’t do it if it’s not for a grade” – This tells me way more about your motivation than your students’

As soon as I read the Tweet I started asking questions …

  • So in theory, one way that educators can encourage students to complete homework is to assign it with point values attached?
  • If a reduction in a grade is based on incomplete homework, does the grade really reflect mastery?

I believe that rewarding/punishing students for doing/not doing their homework can limit motivational tendencies in and outside of the classroom.  Can a teacher truly validate that a student should receive a “C” instead of a “B” because of homework issues?

Now … for some students homework fulfills its purpose.  Students practice and may receive help, but through the practice they are improving in their understanding of certain concepts. This can be beneficial.  As educators already know, this is not the case for all students.  Students that don’t complete the homework on time or turn it in may need some type of intervention in the form of extra help or possible enrichment, depending on the student.

Grading homework in itself can be a form of feedback, but purposeful direct feedback can help students understand concepts more clearly.  Unfortunately, many students don’t look beyond the grade on their paper for feedback.  There isn’t an easy answer for this problem, but I believe moving towards standards based grading practices may help in this situation.  An emphasis on formative assessment practices and feedback may also provide value.  Written feedback with a self-reflection component can be especially valuable in enabling students to become more responsible for their own learning.

My Takeaways:

  • Homework may benefit some students, but definitely not all
  • Grading homework doesn’t necessarily increase motivation or accurately reflect understanding
  • If you’re required to assign homework, assign meaningful and relevant homework
  • Direct feedback (not the actual grade) on formative assessments/homework continues to play an ever important role in the learning process

photo credit: bgilliard via photopin cc

Student Data and Balance

Data and Balance
Data and Balance

Teachers in K-12 often use student data on a regular basis.  Student achievement data can be used to qualify students for reading, gifted, remedial, enrichment, acceleration, differentiation, and a variety of other services.  Recently, standardized testing data has been the forefront of educational trends and in the news.  Implementing a  balanced approach when looking at student data can keep stakeholders (educators and administrators) grounded in an understanding that the numbers behind the tests may give light to areas of strengths/needs.

Data isn’t evil

Assessing a student’s understanding of a specific concept isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  In fact, over the past few years I’ve grown to appreciate and utilize student achievement data more and more.  Whether the data is from a standardized test or not, the data can be helpful if used correctly. Moving data beyond just a number can benefit teachers and students.  Data can help teachers ask better questions and provide opportunities to reflect on how students learn best. Involving students in analyzing their own data can encourage student goal setting and ownership.

Having conversations with students about their data is powerful.

Have the conversation


I’m definitely not an advocate for having additional standardized tests, although some seem more useful than others.  I find that assessments that give detailed feedback (e.g. areas that need strengthening, %ile compared to the norm, strength areas, next instructional steps, etc.) are more frequently used by teachers, compared to assessments the give little feedback.  Obviously, there isn’t a perfect test available for school purchase.  The assessments that a school uses should give detailed feedback that can be immediately used.

Do you hear a lot of negative talk in regard to standardized assessments?  Having a conversation about an assessment’s effectiveness in informing instruction may be needed. Instead of trash talking the assessments in general, educators and administrators should find assessments that work for them.  PLC teams should emphasize the importance of using formative assessments regularly.  I’ve found that teacher created formative assessments are some of the best ways to find areas that need strengthening and to identify differentiation opportunities.  The purpose of giving the assessments should be communicated to all stakeholders.  When teachers understand why the tests are given, (not just for VAM reasons), they may start to value the benefits of assessing students using a variety of tools (such as Common Core performance assessments).

Balance is needed

With teaching and in life, balance is needed.  Teaching is a profession that can be stressfull.  It has many teachers thinking right now, how many days till Spring Break??   Balancing assessments with instruction takes skill and patience.  Standardized tests are often at the forefront of school administrator’s minds.  One test shouldn’t be used to determine if success, or enough growth has been made to call that school year/class/school successful. Take a breath and look at assessments from a macro lens. A combination of formative, informal, formal, review checkpoints, activators, performance  (insert your assessment here), and even standardized assessments have their place in a school and can be beneficial to a certain extent.  The value of the data often depends on how it’s utilized.

Picture Credit: DigitalArt

“Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.” Isaac Asimov

Overemphasizing Standardized Test Data and Possible Solutions

Standardized Tests and Formative Assessments
Assessment Data

Assessment Data …. If you’re within listening distance of a classroom you’ve probably heard the words.  The words can hold positive as well as negative connotations. Two different types of data are often used in the classroom – summative and formative.  I think this picture helps show the difference between the two.  If used appropriately, formative assessment data (exit card, common assessment, observation, journal, data binder, etc.) can be used to improve student learning.  Many teachers that I’ve met through Twitter utilize formative or local assessments to maximize student learning. I believe that it’s possible to use student achievement data to identify specific strengths/concerns as well as assist teachers in developing interventions (remediation/enrichment) for students.

At times the word is also associated with standardized test scores and accountability. Those words combined might make a few teachers cringe and organizers protest. A school district’s standardized test scores may make news headlines and influence school improvement plans.  The emphasis on standardized testing has caused teachers to allocate more time for test prep.  Some districts begin the test prep process in January, or before, when the test actually occurs in March. That test prep time takes away time from many non-test related subject areas.

I’ve been told that the Common Core will change the standardized testing landscape. I can’t predict the future, but I believe standardized test scores will continue to dominate local and national headlines. It’s been well documented that there’s an overemphasis on standardized test scores in public schools in America.  The emphasis on test scores impacts teacher instruction and will soon influence teacher evaluations.  Is this a good thing?

I’m not advocating for or against standardized assessments, but I believe formative assessments should drive academic differentiation decisions in the classroom. Even though the overemphasis on standardized test scores seems to be the norm, I’m optimistic. Why?  Many influential education leaders are starting to notice the impact of standardized testing on students, teachers, communities, and administrators.  The leaders below are speaking out on the impacts of standardized testing.  Feel free to follow the courageous people below.

  • Joshua Star @mcpssuper is the superintendent of MCPS, a large, diverse, and high performing district in Maryland. He has concerns over the validity of standardized tests and has asked for a moratorium on standardized testing.
  • Diane Ravitch @dianeravitch, is Research Professor of Education at New York University, wrote a blog post about the inequalities of standardized testing here.
  • Larry Ferlazzo @larryferlazzo, an ESL teacher in California, wrote a blog post comparing the difference between being data-informed and data-driven.

Exit Cards and Formative Assessments

Image by:  Nattavut

This particular post stems from the above tweet.

Most educators understand that formative assessments can be a valuable tool in teaching and learning.  I’ve found that formative assessments play a pivotal role in my instruction as an educator.  Specifically, I’ve found that exit cards can be a powerful tool in analyzing student learning.  If you’re unfamiliar with the idea of using exit cards as a formative assessment tool, click here.  Below, I’ll give you a brief overview on why and how I use exit cards in the classroom setting.


It’s not required, but I feel as though exit cards  give me an opportunity to quickly assess students’ understanding of the objectives taught for a particular lesson.


In my experience exit cards work well near the end of a lesson.   During that time, the students fill out a small half sheet of paper that includes 1-3 questions related to the objectives taught during a specific lesson.

The questions may be multiple choice, but they generally include some type of written response that demonstrates an understanding of the objectives.

I don’t grade the exit cards (A or B …) instead I put a check on exit cards that show understanding and a subtraction sign that reminds the student and teacher that extra support may be needed.  The exit cards are placed in each student’s portfolio and can be utilized during parent/teacher conferences.  Periodically, I may conference with a student to review their exit cards and set goals based on the conversation.

Students are also given an opportunity to review the exit card slips before an assessment and may even journal about their academic growth in my class.

How often?

I may give exit cards once or twice per week or more frequently as needed.

Next steps?

The exit cards can be utilized to engage students in self-reflection activities (journaling or individual student conferences).  The exit cards can also be reviewed in class to give examples of correct answers.  I’m also planning on using exit cards beyond math and incorporate them into other content areas.

Here is one resource that may be beneficial in communicating what makes a “good” exit card with question and response examples.  I was also thinking that exit cards could be created and shared with a team of teachers and discussed during grade level meetings.

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