What Is the Purpose of Formative Assessment? A Look at the Process of Monitoring Student Growth

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The purpose of formative assessment in education is to monitor students’ progress over the course of their learning so that teachers have the feedback they need to adapt instruction in real time.

It's important to note that formative assessment is not a one-and-done test. Formative assessment is a continuous process of checking for understanding and adjusting instruction until the student has mastered the content or skill. This continuous process is what differentiates formative assessment from other forms of testing.

What Is Formative Assessment in Education?

According to the Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing, formative assessment is defined as “an assessment process used by teachers and students during instruction that provides feedback to adjust ongoing teaching and learning with the goal of improving students’ achievement of intended instructional outcomes.” The key word in this definition is “process,” which highlights the defining feature of formative assessment as an activity, as opposed to a specific test.

Formative assessment takes place during a lesson, and provides information teachers need to adjust their instruction so that every learner in the class can master the content. This process differentiates formative assessment as an assessment for learning, as opposed to summative, which is an assessment of learning.

Formative assessment can determine student understanding relative to learning goals or standards and provide feedback about possible actions to be taken or alternative pathways to a goal. The optimal formative assessment system places the feedback loop at the center of instruction. The loop begins at any point to answer three critical questions about the student:

  • Where are you now?
  • Where are you going?
  • How are you going to get there?

Delve deeper into the three types of assessment and the differences between summative and formative assessments on our blog.

What Is the Primary Purpose of Formative Assessment?

The primary purpose of formative assessment is to inform teachers about whether or not students are actually learning the material taught in day-to-day classroom instruction. Some examples include exit slips, low-stake quizzes, polls, think-pair-share, as well as digital tools for formative assessment. Since formative assessments are given as learning is taking place, teachers (or the technology they're using) can quickly adjust instruction to meet students’ needs in real time.

Note the Characteristics of Formative Assessment

The generally agreed upon characteristics of formative assessments include the focus on process and they are delivered informally, with greater frequency (even daily), and do not lend themselves to formal scoring and grading.

Why Formative Assessment Can Be Challenging

Formative assessment can be challenging in a high-stakes assessment environment that requires regular summative, quantifiable achievement indices. Under these circumstances, there can be pressure to use assessment information as a component of class grades, which could demotivate students. The use of data for a purely instructional purpose can become secondary or non-existent in this climate. Therefore, the challenge is to preserve a balance in the classroom that buffers against the impact of testing and shifts the instructional emphasis toward individual student progress, particularly for those who have been identified as low performing.

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The Need for Professional Development

Some teachers will already be well versed in the formative assessment process, while others will need to develop the skills to do it successfully. Black and Wiliam, in their seminal 1998 paper “Inside the Black Box,” said formative assessment is "at the heart of effective teaching" and focuses on using classroom evidence to "adapt teaching to meet student needs."

Using formative assessment effectively in the classroom is, in general, a difficult skill for teachers to master. In order to have the greatest impact on formative assessment, professional development should target the intersection between teacher content knowledge and relevant pedagogical strategies for teaching content to students.

Research on teacher effectiveness has shown that content knowledge and pedagogical-content knowledge, which represents teaching practices tailored specifically to the domain, have a significant impact on student achievement. In fact, pedagogical-content knowledge may play a more central role than simple knowledge of the content. Mathematics educator E.G. Begle found that the number of credits a teacher had in mathematics methods courses was a stronger indicator of student performance than the number of credits in mathematics content courses. Education professor D.H. Monk also found that math and science education coursework had a positive effect on student learning and was sometimes more influential than additional subject matter preparation.

This research suggests that it is the intersection of teacher content knowledge and pedagogical-content knowledge that best improves student performance, with pedagogical-content knowledge augmenting or offsetting content knowledge. Bottom line: sometimes additional content knowledge simply is not necessary to teach some courses, but pedagogical knowledge of how to teach the content to students continues to impact student performance.

Putting It Together in the Classroom

To enhance the development of teachers’ formative assessment skills, professional development should focus on a three-step process of Probe-Diagnose-Respond (PDR). Good teaching probes student understanding by creating opportunities for them to demonstrate their thinking; diagnoses student understanding by analyzing what their responses reveal about their thinking; and responds to students’ level of understanding appropriately.

This framework’s three components that support the formative assessment process are described as:

Probe for student understanding. A teacher creates opportunities for individual students and the larger class to demonstrate their thinking, and determines whether an issue is particular to one student or may be an issue for the larger class. These opportunities may present themselves naturally through classroom discourse, or be generated by tools at the appropriate time.

Diagnose student understanding. A teacher must diagnose student understanding. Preliminary diagnoses can lead to further probing, to better assess what is at issue and how best to respond. There are many reasons students may have limited understanding. They may not have sufficient background knowledge to understand the topic, or they may not have understood the question or problem being posed. They may have misconceptions about a topic that hinder their understanding, or they may have a tentative understanding that needs to be developed.

Respond to diagnosis. A teacher’s diagnosis should lead to an appropriate instructional response. Good responses don’t focus on correcting students’ errors, but on leading students to desired understandings and sound thinking that will enable them to correct their own errors. Responsive teachers do this in a way that values students’ efforts, builds their self-confidence, and encourages them to view themselves as contributing members in a community of learners.

Final Thoughts on Formative Assessment

Students in a given classroom often differ in many ways (e.g., cultural background or previous opportunities to learn knowledge and skills). A commitment to the achievement of all learners requires teachers to tailor instructional strategies to the needs of each student. An effective approach for accomplishing this is through periodic formative assessments that vary both in terms of timing as well as mode of delivery. By understanding what needs to be taught, the current state of student understanding, how best to deliver instruction, and how to assess understanding (formative and summative evaluations), teachers can more effectively impart meaningful instruction.


Learn how Waggle, the award-winning personalized learning program, addresses formative assessment for students in Grades K–8.

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