Formative Assessments for Elementary Teachers

No matter where or what grade you teach (first grade, fifth grade, or somewhere in between), assessment is likely an ongoing topic of conversation in your school (during staff meetings, school-provided professional development, and performance reviews).  There are so many types of assessments being talked about: Formative, summative, informal, formal, standardized, diagnostic, benchmark, and much much more. It can feel very overwhelming – and rightfully so!  Read below to alleviate some of this feeling of overwhelm by learning all about formative assessments.

This blog post will…

  • describe what formative assessment is and how it’s different than summative assessment
  • explain why it’s important to use formative assessments in your elementary classroom
  • provide examples, strategies, tools, and ideas of formative assessments you can use in your classroom (grade 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5)

What is formative assessment?

The definition of a formative assessment in the education field is a type of informal assessment that teachers use to quickly and effectively collect student data and use the results to not only track their students’ progress, but also to inform and drive their instruction.  Formative assessments can be graded and counted towards students’ final grades; however, most of them should not.  They can be described as a daily progress monitoring tool used in the classroom before, during, or after instruction for teaching and learning purposes.

What is the difference between formative assessment and summative assessment?

Formative assessment and summative assessment are both types of assessments, however let’s talk about how they are different from one another. Here are 5 ways they are different:

  1. Formative assessments are informal assessments and summative assessments are formal assessments.
  2. The goal of formative assessments is to monitor student learning and inform instruction and the goal of summative assessments is to evaluate student learning.
  3. Formative assessments are given during a unit of study and summative assessments are given at the end.
  4. Formative assessments focus on the individual performance and needs of students, and summative assessments normalize students’ scores and compares them against a predetermined standard of achievement.
  5. Formative assessments have little to no impact on a student’s grade, but summative assessments have a large impact on a student’s grade.

Why is formative assessment important?

There are many benefits to using formative assessments in your elementary classroom. It has become an integral part of best teaching practices.  Here are 10 reasons why you need to be using formative assessment in your classroom daily:

  1. Making Data-Driven Decisions: Formative assessments empower you to be able to make data-driven decisions for your classroom.  For example, you can determine if a concept or skill needs to be retaught as a whole group, small group, or individual basis, or if you can move on to the next topic or lesson.  You will have the information you need at your fingertips to make informed decisions for your individual class.
  2. Delivering Individualized Instruction: The information you collect through formative assessments helps you provide appropriate and individualized instruction to all of your students.  After collecting the information, you can analyze it, sort it, and use it to plan and deliver instruction that is appropriate for the various needs in your classroom.
  3. Reflecting on Learning: Formative assessments provide opportunities for students to reflect on their learning, current understanding, and thinking in a stress-free way. 
  4. Reflecting on Teaching: Similar to the previous reason, formative assessments provide teachers the opportunity to pause and reflect on their teaching practices, specifically what strategies are and are not working in their classroom.
  5. Identifying Student Misunderstandings: Formative assessments allow you to quickly identify student misunderstandings while you are teaching or at the end of the school day – depending on the format of the formative.  You’ll be able to address these misunderstandings in the moment or at the beginning of the next school day.
  6. Increasing Student Engagement: Questioning techniques and other formative assessment strategies require students to be active participants in their learning.  This could involve students simply putting 1, 2, or 3 fingers up in the air, writing their response to a prompt on a white baord, or filling out an exit ticket.  
  7. Increasing Student Achievement: Research has shown that progress monitoring throughout the use of formative assessments has resulted in higher test scores.
  8. Deepening Understanding of Students: Once you start using formative assessments daily, you will be amazed how well you get to know your students, how their brains work, and their current abilities and understandings of your grade level and previous grade level content.  Formative assessments are incredibly powerful tools!
  9. Developing a Growth Mindset Culture: Students learn over time that it’s okay if they don’t understand a concept or skill the first time it is taught to them.  They will have many opportunities to continue to learn and practice and their teacher will support them throughout this journey.  Even if they don’t get it the first time, they need to persevere to reach their goals using a growth mindset.
  10. Empowering Teachers with Flexibility in Teaching: The idea behind using formative assessments is that we need to monitor how well students are learning the content being presented to them.  It acknowledges that the teacher should have the autonomy to decide what is best for his or her group of students using the data as the guide.


What are some examples of formative assessment strategies?

5 Formative Assessments for Any Lesson

  1. Questioning Techniques with Hand Signals: Pose a problem or ask a question to the class and invite them to respond using their fingers.  The number of fingers should represent a specific response.  For example, prior to posing the question you could assign that one finger represents yes and two fingers represent no.  Another system could be that one finger represents A, two fingers represent B, three fingers represent C, and four fingers represent D in a multiple choice scenario.  This technique allows you to quickly assess your group as a whole to gauge student understanding.
  2. Think-Pair-Share: When students are seated on the rug, I recommend having them sit next to a partner.  This serves as a very helpful classroom management strategy, and sets students up for engaging in think-pair-share.  Start think-pair-share by posing a question, situation, or prompt to students.  Give them independent “think time.”  Next, ask them to share their thinking with their partner.  Lastly, invite a handful of students to share out their thoughts with the whole group.
  3. Four Corners: This will likely be a kid favorite, especially for those students who benefit from body breaks.  One way to implement this formative assessment strategy is to assemble a list of multiple choice questions (with four answer choices) and assign a letter (A, B, C and D) to each of the corners of the classroom.  Students start each question at the center of the classroom.  After saying the prompt, the teacher provides students “think time” before letting them choose their corner.  When the teacher says go, students can move to that corner.  Another way to implement this is by assigning the corners numbers or words.  For example, you could label the corners of the classroom with 5, 10, 15, and 20 and ask students addition problems.  They will move to the corner that is labeled with the sum of the problem prosed.  There are tons of ways to implement this strategy.  Be creative and have fun with this activity!
  4. Stop Light: Create two-sided cards (a green side and a red side) using construction paper.  I recommend laminating them so they last all year long.  Pause throughout a given lesson to check student understanding by instructing them to hold up the card displaying how confident they are feeling in the content.  Green means they are following along and understand everything they are learning and red means they are feeling stuck and confused.  They can also use these when they are working independently by putting the card on the top of their desk displaying the card that represents how they are feeling.
  5. Exit Tickets: Exit tickets are a highly effective formative assessment tool to give at the end of a lesson.  Check out these 20 exit tickets you can use with any lesson.  They are a quick way to informally assess how well your students understood what you’ve taught. They were designed to include a simple self-assessment section using a thumbs-up / thumbs down image so you can tell at a glance which students need your help.  These are great for planning future instruction, forming small groups, and preventing misbehavior that can occur when there is downtime at students transition at the end of a lesson.  A 3-2-1 summary is a type of exit ticket that follows a consistent structure: Write 3 things you learned from the lesson. Write 2 things you found interesting or want to learn more about. Write 1 question you still have. Grab this FREE 3-2-1 Summary Exit Slip!

3 Formative Assessments for Math Specifically

There are tons of awesome math formative assessment tools, strategies, methods, and ideas out there, but here are my 3 favorite!

  1. Xtra Math: Incorporate technology in your formative assessments approach through the use of Xtra Math, an online math fact fluency practice tool that you can set up for FREE!  You can customize it to fit your students’ individual needs.  It can be programmed to practice the following operations: Addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division.  One great feature is that it provides instant feedback to students when they are playing.  It can be used with all students in your classroom, including those who receive support through special education services.  For example, there is an American Sign Language version to support students who are deaf.
  2. Quick Checks: These quick check assessments can be used as an exit ticket in your small guided math group or during the closing of your math workshop.  They are quick and easy to grade (only 3 questions) and are aligned to the Common Core state standards.  They are available for first, second, third, fourth, and fifth grade.
  3. 10 Question Assessments: These 10 question assessments have 3 versions (all having a consistent template) so they can easily be used as benchmark assessments throughout the school year or as a pre-test, mid-test, and post-test during a math unit.  They are also aligned to the Common Core standards. They are available for first, second, third, fourth, and fifth grade.

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