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Formative Reading Assessment & Usable Data

5 Min Read
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Teachers want to maximize their students’ learning and to do this they need many sources of data—including their own observations—to tell them how their students are doing (Al Otaiba et al., 2011, 2014; Shepard et al., 2005). The right kinds of data inform teachers about the instruction that will most benefit their students; identify students who may need additional, out-of-classroom help; and give thoughtful teachers feedback on how they are doing in meeting students’ needs.

Formative Reading Assessment Examples

Formative assessments measure the process of learning and what students have learned so far. These are given frequently—as often as monthly—throughout the school year.

Teachers seeking to provide data-informed instruction rely specifically on two types of formative reading assessment:

  • Formative benchmark assessments compare students’ progress so far against a determined set of standards (e.g., a scope and sequence) to help teachers track students’ trajectory toward established long-term goals.
  • Formative diagnostic assessments provide data on students’ learning accomplishments (e.g., can answer literal questions about what has been read) and areas that are not as well developed (e.g., has difficulties drawing simple inferences from text).

Although there is value in all forms of data, it can be argued that formative diagnostic assessments provide teachers the most actionable information about their students’ learning by offering insight into students’ understandings and misunderstandings and into gaps in their skills.

Data-Informed Instruction

Benchmark assessments and diagnostic assessments are formative reading assessments that generate data to inform teachers’ instruction. Data are essential for planning instructional groups for the literacy block: Who should be included in the groups, and what should the groups be taught and asked to do? Are students ready for new concepts and skills, or should teachers reteach students to ensure learning? Data help teachers differentiate reading instruction according to their students’ learning. According to the National Reading Panel (NICHD, 2000, p. 2), students learn best in carefully constituted small groups, even more so than if taught one-on-one. Grouping should be a dynamic, flexible practice, with instruction determined by student need and students’ entry into and exit from specific groups determined by their progress. Thus, teachers can provide immediate, focused instruction for students who seem to be struggling or becoming at risk for failure as part of their regular Tier 1 literacy block, perhaps thereby forestalling assignment to Tier 2 or 3 intervention. Needless to say, formative diagnostic assessment data can also identify those students who would most benefit from specialized Tier 2 or 3 interventions (Al Otaiba et al., 2014; Fien et al., 2015; Gersten et al., 2008).

Formative diagnostic assessment should become part of the teaching process, for example, as teachers listen to students read orally and identify patterns or errors or as they analyze students’ independent writing assignments. Many comprehensive literacy programs include digital products that track students’ use and record the results for use as formative diagnostic data. Some include rubrics and other standardized tools to help teachers consistently evaluate students’ progress, along with short formative diagnostic assessments that are often delivered digitally.

Equally useful as teachers try to use data to differentiate instruction are the digital dashboards that some recent reading programs provide. These allow teachers to organize and track formative diagnostic data for individuals and for whole classes (Connor, 2017) to make differentiation of instruction and grouping decisions efficient.

When administering reading assessments remotely:
  • Have students choose an area with minimal distractions
  • Communicate that students cannot use a dictionary, thesaurus, or other online or computer-based tools
  • Remind students to take the assessment independently, without assistance

Teachers put great value on formative assessment, as illustrated by their use of the word informative to describe its important role in guiding instruction. Now we can all see the relevance of formative assessment, as summative and state assessments have been disrupted and we strive to meet the learning needs of our students.


Learn more about our science of reading curriculum, an evidence-based approach to help students in their reading journeys.

Portions of this blog were originally published in the HMH white paper “Science-Based Elements of Effective Early Literacy Programs.” To read the full research paper, click here.


Al Otaiba, S., Connor, C. M., Folsom, J. S., Greulich, J., Meadows, J., & Zhi, L. (2011). Assessment data—Informed guidance to individualize kindergarten reading instruction: Findings from a cluster-randomized control field trial. The Elementary School Journal, 111(4): 535–560.

Al Otaiba, S., Connor, C. M., Folsom, J. S., Wanzek, J., Greulichs, L., Schnatschneider, C., & Wagner, R. K. (2014). To wait in Tier 1 or intervene immediately: A randomized experiment examining first-grade responses to intervention in reading. Exceptional Children, 81(1), 11–27. doi:10.1177/0014402914532234

Connor, C. M. (2017). Using technology and assessment to personalize instruction: Preventing reading problems. Prevention Science, 1–11. doi:10.1007/s11121-017-0842-9

Fien, H., Smith, J. M., Smolkowski, K., Baker, S. K., Nelson, N. J., & Chapparo, E. (2015). An examination of the efficacy of a multi-tiered intervention on early reading outcomes for first grade students at risk for reading difficulties. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 48(6), 602–621. doi:10.1177/002221941 4521664

Gersten, R., Compton, D., Connor, C. M., Dimino, J., Santoro, L., Linan-Thompson, S., & Tilly, W. D. (2008). Assisting students struggling with reading: Response to Intervention and multi-tier intervention for reading in the primary grades. A practice guide. (NCEE 2009-4045). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from

National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). (2000). Report of the National Reading Panel. Washington, DC: Author.

Shepard, L., Hammerness, K., Darling-Hammond, L., & Rust, F. (2005). Assessment. In L. Darling-Hammond & J. Bransford (Eds.), Preparing teachers for a changing world: What teachers should learn and be able to do (pp. 275–326). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

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