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Formative Assessment Used to Its Greatest Advantage

By Peter Johnston and Peter Afflerbach
 | Sep 17, 2015

ThinkstockPhotos-80295203_x300Research is clear that formative assessment strongly influences achievement. There is, however, confusion about the nature of formative assessment. It is often reduced to standardized tests or “probes,” such as AIMSWEB or DIBELS.

Assessment is formative when it makes teaching more responsive. Consequently, formative assessment depends primarily on teachers’ knowledge, observational skill, and ability to adapt instruction and create classroom environments that invite engagement and make relevant information available. For example, we can learn a lot about children’s word knowledge from their invented spelling, provided the classroom environment encourages it and teachers know how to interpret it.

Similarly, when children routinely have book conversations, knowledgeable listening yields considerable information about their comprehension. Classrooms that invite collaboration, choice, wait time, trying, and a conversational focus on processes—how children did what they did—provide useful formative information. When children collaborate, they articulate strategies and reasoning. Attempts at spelling or other literate problem solving reveal the leading edge of knowledge and strategies lying behind the attempts, and more wait time begets more attempts. Conversations about children’s strategic attempts distribute their strategic repertoire and build their sense of self-efficacy. The systematic recording of such instructionally embedded data is more informative and less disruptive than tests or “probes.”

Formative assessment is not only about children’s behavior and thinking. When a child is not developing well in the classroom, we must shift attention to the context for learning, such as our interactions and materials. For example, we might find a child is not engaged or not approaching reading and writing as meaning-making activities. We can see this in their choices, their strategies, their patterns of errors, and the extent to which and ways they take control of their learning. In such cases, we investigate how our instructional practices might have contributed. Our formative assessment might examine the books we are using, how we interact with the student(s) around those books, the talk of the classroom, and the time we allow for self-correction. For this formative assessment, reflective audio- or videotaping, collaborative peers, or a coach can be particularly helpful.

Formative assessments reflect, or are reflected in, our instructional practices and learning theories. Arranging for children to make books, for example, makes it possible to know a lot about their writing, including not only their word knowledge and sense of composition, but also what they know about the social logic of authors’ and illustrators’ strategic practices.

By contrast, if formative assessments focus on reading speed and nonsense words, the instruction that follows, emphasizing speed and technical accuracy, will limit other forms of data both because we can’t gather all data and because the theories children will generate about the nature of literacy will limit any choices they make. Although the more children read, the faster they can read, their engagement in reading, and the extent to which they take the initiative to do so, is a far more important indicator and goal. If assessment focuses only on cognitive strategies and skills, we will lack vital information on students’ engagement and motivation.

It is also true that our learning theories can differ for particular children and are evident in our interactions with them. Wait times are shorter for children we view as less competent (Allington, 1983), and feedback on their writing is focused on technical accuracy rather than meaningfulness (Nystrand, Gamoran, et al., 1997). These emphases reflect the incompetencies we notice in our formative assessments of their reading and writing. These assessments perpetuate our deficit-oriented theories about these children because the resulting interactions undermine meaningfulness and self-correction, and consequently the possibility of students taking control of and becoming engaged in their learning.

Our formative assessment emphases should encourage, sustain, and certainly not undermine children’s engagement in meaningful literate practices, and their consequent understandings of themselves as competent members of a literate community. They should also provide us with the information necessary to optimize instruction.

Additional resources

Good examples of formative assessment in literacy can be found in books such as About the Authors (Ray & Cleaveland, 2004), in which the nature of student development in the social practices of literacy is documented and recording methods are described. Similarly, the use of running records to record changes in reading processes provides an excellent example (Clay, 2000). Concept maps provide another example of an embedded activity that provides useful formative assessment. Ample examples are available on the Internet.

Clay, M. M., (2000). Running records for classroom teachers. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Gallagher, C. W. (2009). “Kairos and informative assessment: Rethinking the formative/summative distinction in Nebraska.” Theory Into Practice, 48(1), 81-88. doi: 10.1080/00405840802577676

Johnston, P. (2003). “Assessment conversations.” The Reading Teacher, 57(1), 90-92.

MacDonald, M. (2007). Toward formative assessment: The use of pedagogical documentation in early elementary classrooms. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 22(2), 232-242. doi: 10.1016/j.ecresq.2006.12.001

Ray, K. W., & Cleaveland, L. (2004). About the authors. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Sellmann, D., Liefländer, A. K., & Bogner, F. X. (2015). “Concept maps in the classroom: A new approach to reveal students’ conceptual change.” Journal of Educational Research, 108(3), 250-257. doi: 10.1080/00220671.2014.896315

Wiliam, D. (2008). “Changing classroom practice: Meeting regularly in teacher learning communities is one of the best ways for teachers to develop their skill in using formative assessment.” Educational Leadership (December 2007-January 2008), 36-42.

Wiliam, D. (2006). “Formative assessment: Getting the focus right.” Educational Assessment, 11(3/4), 283-289. doi: 10.1207/s15326977ea1103&4_7

Easily accessible relevant material

There are various relevant websites and videos by Dylan Wiliam available on the Internet, such as:

Peter Johnston is a professor emeritus at the State University of New York at Albany. Peter Afflerbach is a professor of reading in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Maryland. 

The ILA Literacy Research Panel uses this blog to connect educators around the world with research relevant to policy and practice. Reader response is welcomed via e-mail.



Allington, R. L. (1983). "The reading instruction provided readers of differing ability." Elementary School Journal, 83, 548-559.

Nystrand, M., et al. (1997). Opening dialogue: Understanding the dynamics of language and learning in the English classroom. New York, NY, Teachers College Press.


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