What is a Formative Assessment, Anyway?

What is a Formative Assessment, Anyway? - Light Bulbs and Laughter Blog
Let's say that your principal called you into his office and sat you down.  Then he said these words: "What formative assessments are you performing for your current math unit?"  Would you know what to say?  I didn't.  All that came to my mind in that moment were quizzes (which I had not made for a while) and exit slips (which I made, but kept forgetting to use).  Luckily, he got an important phone call and said that he would talk to me later.

My new number one goal in life became finding out exactly what the words "formative assessment" really mean.  Because if it was really quizzes and exit slips, I wasn't doing much of it at all.

Now the word assessment tends to stress some people out.  It sounds so formal, like a test, but more scary.  Then, when you get your teaching credential you find out how many kinds of assessments there are.  Really?  We learn words like criterion-referenced and norm-referenced and interim and benchmark.  We all know about the BIG assessment at the end of the school year, the one that shows whether we are a good teacher or a lousy one, right?  (Let's save that debate for another time.)

But I'm talking about me.  In the classroom.  With my students every day.  My teacher ed classes taught me that there's one assessment at the beginning of a unit of study (diagnostic), and one at the end (summative).  You compare those to find out how much your students have learned.  What falls in between are formative assessments.  That's what I understood.  So, off I went to look up the words:

Definition of formative assessment - Light Bulbs and Laughter Blog

Hmmm.  So it can be any method that gives the teacher information about a student's needs and progress toward a particular goal.  Okay.  Further reading led me to understand that what makes it formative is not what you do, but how you USE the information that you gather.  If you use it to inform instruction - that is, changing how you teach, then you have given a formative assessment.

I pondered for a while.  This was sounding good to me.  So they don't have to be formal.  Or scary.  Or even use pencil and paper.   I decided to look back at what we had been doing in math for the last several weeks.  Our focus was on multiplication.  My lesson plans did not show any quizzes.  So how was I gathering information to inform my instruction?  I went back through the pictures I had been taking.

Multiplication Formative Assessment - Light Bulbs and Laughter Blog
Look at this lovely young lady to the left.  We were working with our white boards (a piece of printer paper inside of a plastic page protector).  I asked her to show me everything she knew about 5 x 4.  That's all I said.  She drew what she knew, and called me over when she was done.  We had a 30 second conversation, and I walked away, informed about what she understood about multiplication at that time.  I made a note on my clipboard, sent her to partner up with a struggling student, and moved on.

Could this really be a formative assessment?  Where's the scary part?  Look at that face... she's not nervous, she's having fun!  And did I use the information I gathered?  Yup, sure did.  I noted it and sent her to help someone who wasn't as far along as she.

Multiplication games as formative assessments - Light Bulbs and Laughter Blog So what about partner formative assessments?  (Of course, I really mean games.  I make a lot of math games for my students.)  So I asked myself some questions.  Do I walk around and listen to my students when they play these particular games?  Check.  Do I get an idea of where they are in their multiplication fluency?  Check.  Do I then group them accordingly, and reteach the group that is struggling?  Check.  That's a formative assessment.  This was getting fun!
Multiplication formative assessment on white board - Light Bulbs and Laughter Blog
iPad math game: tape diagrams - Light Bulbs and Laughter BlogHow about when students come up to the white board to work a problem?  Is that a formative assessment?  Let's find out.  Am I gathering information?  Yep.  Do I know who did what?  You betcha.  (They love putting their name by their work.)  Do I use this data to decide if I can move on to the next lesson tomorrow?  Uh huh.  There you go.  Formative assessment.

Unfortunately, here's one that doesn't count.  I'm working on getting a set of seven iPads for my classroom, so that we can use them when we do groups.  (We are up to 5 now, but that's another post!)

This student is doing a fabulous activity using tape diagrams - something we were studying that week.  The problem is, I have no way to track what she is doing at this time.  Did she get it right?  Probably.  But I don't know for sure.  And if you look really closely?  You will see that she switched from multiplication to addition.  Sneaky girl!  So this activity cannot be considered a formative assessment.

There are many other math activities in my classroom that qualify as formative assessments under this criteria.  Here are just a few:
  • Going over homework together
  • Playing Multiplication Sparkle - a whole class game
  • Daily multiplication fluency tests
  • Using computer based standards practice such as IXL (our district has an account)
  • Small group activities
  • Practicing flash cards
There are many more, even quizzes and exit tickets (if I ever remember to use them!).

So, the next time my principal calls me in to ask me that question about formative assessments?  I'll be ready to answer.  And it's nice to know I was doing them all along!

Happy Teaching,


  1. Do you have plans to put on TpT math vocabulary like the ones seen on the right in the picture of the kids solving the word problem on the white board?

    1. Those are actually a product that I purchased on Teachers Pay Teachers, from the Clutter-Free Classroom. They're called: 3rd Grade 125 Common Core Math Vocabulary Word Wall Cards. I highly recommend them!


  2. I also did not know about formative assessment, but now I got it after reading your article.Thanks for such helpful information regarding formative assessment.

  3. This is wonderful topics thanks for sharing
    php developers

  4. People looking for a trademark, safe pain reliever are dynamically going to CBD as an alternative to typically used opiate painkillers like Oxycontin, Percocet, and Vicodin, which have heaps of accidental impacts and pass on with them the risk of dependence. On the other hand, CBD has no side impacts and isn't propensity shaping. Hemp oil benefits

  5. Formative assessment is a valuable tool in education, providing ongoing feedback to students and helping them understand their strengths and areas for improvement. When it comes to conducting research and writing a dissertation, seeking professional help with dissertation can be equally transformative. Expert guidance and support can ensure that your research process and writing are on track, enabling you to excel in your academic journey.

  6. This insightful blog on formative assessment provides a clear understanding of its significance in education. The practical insights resonate well with educators. For further academic support, Programming Assignment Help from ASSIGNMENT help pro proves invaluable, ensuring students excel in their assessments.