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More of What’s Meaningful: Formative Assessments

by Jennifer Serravallo
 | Aug 29, 2013
I believe that students today are over-assessed and under-taught. So would it be hypocritical of me to spend a blog post lauding the value of assessments?

p: Fort Worth Squatch via photopin cc
There’s an important difference between the multiple-choice, high-stakes, quantitative assessments and the kind that we need more of. Formative assessments, those that help teachers to uncover what students know and can do, and help teachers plan meaningful, individualized instruction. In order for formative assessments to enhance, not detract, from classroom instruction, it’s important they meet a few criteria:

Formative assessments should match what you want students to do. If you want students to read whole, independent level texts, then the assessment should look at how they do that. Short passage excerpts and constructed reading samples don’t match the everyday happenings in a classroom, so why use them for an assessment? When you want to find out how kids make meaning in a whole book, have them read a whole book with questions pre-planted on post-it notes inside the book, as in the Independent Reading Assessment. Ask students to respond in writing to your questions and use what they write to identify next steps.

Formative assessments should be evaluated, so that teachers can plan instruction. We need to end the assess-score-file away cycle that is a dead-end, and replace it with assess-evaluate-teach. Assessments that give us just a letter or number offer very little help to the classroom teacher. We need assessments that help uncover nuance of what real readers do every day. These assessments should be analyzed for teaching opportunities, and used to help identify a goal. This goal can then be the focus of the individualized, personalized instruction that occurs during conferring and small group lessons, and class trends can help inform whole group instruction.

Formative assessments should take a minimal amount of instructional time. In some schools I visit, teachers set aside teaching for weeks or a month at a time, several times a year, to administer assessments. This isn’t helping kids! When we see summer slippage of significant levels over just two months, consider what the cumulative effect is when teachers halt their teaching for multiple months every year. Formative assessments should be quick to administer, or should be something students can complete independently and evaluated later by the teacher.

Formative assessments should help teachers find a common language across the school. There is real power in teachers coming together during common planning, PLCs, or staff meetings to develop rubrics or work off existing rubrics. This sort of collaboration helps solidify the expectations from classroom to classroom, which lends consistency to each student’s experience.

There’s no reason for “assessment” to be a dirty word. If assessments match what students do, are used by teachers to plan, use minimal precious classroom time, and help a school develop consistency of expectations, then they are an invaluable part of any well-run classroom.

Jennifer Serravallo is a speaker, researcher, and literacy consultant. For years she was a classroom teacher in New York City until she became a senior staff developer at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University. She is the author of numerous resources for teachers on the teaching of reading, including Scholastic's AEP award winning INDEPENDENT READING ASSESSMENT for fiction and nonfiction, TEACHING READING IN SMALL GROUPS, and THE LITERACY TEACHER’S PLAYBOOK. She is also co-author of CONFERRING WITH READERS. Visit her online at

© 2013 Jennifer Serravallo. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise.

IRA Position Statement: Formative Assessment

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