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What is a formative assessment?

“Formative assessments serve as practice for students, just like a meaningful homework assignment. They check for understanding along the way and guide teacher decision-making about future instruction; they also provide feedback to students so they can improve their performance.”

Formative assessments help paint a portrait of what students know and understand, as well as topics that they are having difficulty grasping. Serving as checkups, formative assessments give you the chance to correct students’ mistakes and iron out any difficulties early in the learning process.

What’s the difference between a formative assessment and a summative assessment?

Formative Assessment: Formative assessments differ from summative assessments in a few ways. For one, formative assessments don’t necessarily need to be graded. Since they serve as checkups, it is more about the information rather than the end score. The information gleaned helps shape instruction and future content. Whereas a summative assessment usually takes the form a final pen-and-paper test or final project, a formative assessment can take the form of many things. It could be a simple writing assignment, a chance to draw, a quiz, or even a short discussion with a student.

Summative Assessment: Summative assessments are all about the end result. What have students learned? What did they retain? How much have they progressed? These tests are used to measure students’ overall grasp of the material and have a significant impact on their final grades. As mentioned above, they typically take the form of a final project or midterm/finals test.

It can be easy to confuse formative and summative assessments. One way to remember the difference is that formative assessments are often referred to as tests for learning, while summative assessments are tests on learning.

How often should I give my students a formative assessment?

The key thing to remember is quality over quantity. Quality formative assessment practices will always yield more helpful student data. The amount really is up to you. If you feel like it has been awhile since you last checked up on your students’ understanding, maybe an assessment could help. There is no magic number.

Why does it matter, anyway?

Formative assessments are instrumental in maximizing student achievement. By consistently monitoring and checking up on students’ academic progress and using a formative assessment process, you’re able to correct and minimize the obstacles in students’ paths. This gives students the best possible chance at mastering content and growing as learners for years to come.

Resources and further reading

Dodge, Judith. What Are Formative Assessments and Why Should We Use Them? Scholastic. Retrieved from:

Kerns, Gene. (2015) Is formative assessment a tool or a process, and what makes it good? Renaissance. Retrieved from:

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