Skip to Content

Formative Assessment


On this page...

Formative Assessment is a process used by teachers and students as part of instruction that provides feedback to adjust ongoing teaching and learning to improve students’ achievement of core content. As assessment for learning, formative assessment practices provide students with clear learning targets, examples and models of strong and weak work, regular descriptive feedback, and the ability to self-assess, track learning, and set goals. (Adapted from Council of Chief State School Officers, FAST SCASS)

Intended Purpose Assessment FOR Learning Examples
To increase students' learning Non-graded quizzes, pretests, minute papers, exit tickets, written assignments, concept maps, interviews, progress monitoring, performance assessment scoring guides, weekly reports, focused questions, journals, learning logs, learning probes, checklists, surveys, and item analyses of summative assessments
To adjust instruction
To diagnosis student needs
To improve the instructional program

Research has shown that effective assessment for learning practices have the potential to greatly increase both student achievement and motivation. (See Assessment for Learning Resources) Black and Wiliams (1998) identify the key classroom assessment features that result in these large achievement gains as:

  • Assessments that result in accurate information
  • Descriptive rather than evaluative feedback to students
  • Student involvement in assessment

For classroom formative assessment practices to both motivate students and increase student achievement, students need to know the learning target, know where they are at in regards to the learning target, and know what they can do to close the gap. In Classroom Assessment for Student Learning, Richard J. Stiggins lists 7 strategies of assessment for learning. They are as follows:

  1. Provide a clear and understandable vision of the learning targets.
  2. Use examples and models of strong and weak work.
  3. Offer regular descriptive feedback.
  4. Teach students to self-assess and set goals.
  5. Design lessons to focus on one aspect of quality at a time.
  6. Teach students focused revision.
  7. Engage students in self-reflection, and let them keep track of and share their learning.


Formative assessment is an integral part of the following initiatives in Iowa Schools:

Authentic Intellectual Work (AIW)

Within the standards for AIW, special emphasis is placed on cognitive complexity, or teaching for understanding. Formative assessments are used to determine the progress of students toward deeper levels of understanding. “Research on authentic intellectual work throughout the United States indicated that in grades 3 – 12, across the subjects of mathematics, social studies, language arts, science, and regardless of race, gender, or social class, students who experienced higher levels of instruction and assessment that promoted authentic intellectual work showed higher achievement than students who experienced lower levels of instruction and assessment aimed toward authentic intellectual work.” Newmann, Fred M., Bruce King, and Dana Carmichael. Authentic Instruction and Assessment. Prepared for the Iowa Department of Education, 2007.

Cognitively Guided Instruction (CGI)

CGI provides a framework for assessing students’ thinking. CGI teachers use formative assessments and learn how to use what their children currently understand to plan instructional activities for these students. CGI incorporates the three critical criteria for authentic intellectual work, construction of knowledge, disciplined inquiry, and value of achievement beyond school.

Multi-Tiered System of Supports

Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS) in Iowa, also known as Response to Intervention or RtI, is an every-education decision-making framework of evidence-based practices in instruction and assessment that addresses the needs of all students starting in general education. A key component of MTSS is evidence-based curriculum and instruction. To keep learning moving forward each student needs continuous monitoring of on-going learning. With each lesson, MTSS teachers identify the intended learning, use evidence of students meeting the learning goals, and identify which students need additional support, are on track to learn, or need to move forward. Teachers using formative assessment practices are also able to engage students in thinking and acting on their learning needs.

Professional Development

The Iowa Department of Education has developed seven online modules for collaborative learning teams. They may be used as part of a building’s professional development plan for implementing the Iowa Core, as part of a course syllabus, or independently by a team of 3 to 10 educators to deepen their understanding of formative assessment. They do not require that the team have an expert in formative assessment as a facilitator, but presume the team or facilitator has some experience in collaborative learning.

These modules illustrate the process of assessment for learning and incorporate the following six attributes identified by Iowa educators: learning progressions; clear learning goals and success criteria; modifying instruction based on elicited evidence; providing descriptive feedback; self- and peer-assessment; and creating a collaborative classroom climate. Each module was developed to follow the Iowa Professional Development Model and to include opportunities for understanding theory, engaging with a demonstration, practicing in the classroom, and peer coaching.

The Assessment for Learning modules are:

  1. Foundation
  2. Learning Intentions
  3. Eliciting Evidence/Instructional Modifications
  4. Descriptive Feedback
  5. Self-and Peer-assessment
  6. Collaborative Classroom Climate
  7. Putting It Into Practice
  8. Module Demo

To access the modules go to Follow the directions on the page to set up an account. Go to Assessment and then Assessment for Learning.


Articles for Use in Professional Development

Assessment Through the Student’s Eye
Stiggins, R., (2007). Assessment through the student’s eye. Educational Leadership May2007, Vol. 64 Issue 8, p22-26, 5p. Retrieved October 31, 2007 from

The article addresses the use and purposes of assessment in U.S. education in the early 21st century. The author notes that historically schools have used assessment to highlight student differences and rank students by achievement; he adds that, in 2007, schools are using assessment information to help students meet standards. The author believes that educators must address student confidence and motivation as well as potential, and he suggests using assessment for learning rather than using it only to verify learning. He explains that assessment for learning involves sharing information with students, discussing goals, and providing descriptive feedback to improve performance. He provides descriptive scenarios and suggestions for professional development.

Five Assessment Myths and Their Consequences
Stiggins, R., (2007) Five assessment myths and their consequences. Education Week, v27, n8, p28-29 Oct 2007. Retrieved September 25, 2015 from 3, 2007 from

From Formative Assessment to Assessment FOR Learning: A Path to Success in Standards-Based Schools
Stiggins, R., (2005). From formative assessment to assessment for learning: a path to success in standards-based schools. Phi Delta Kappan, Dec2005, Vol. 87 Issue 4, p324-328, 5p, 1bw. Retrieved November 1, 2007 from

The article discusses the purpose of assessments in U.S. schools and why they should be changed. The redefined mission for American schools is to provide standards-based education and the opportunity for all students to learn in effective schools with pre-specified standards. The assessment legacy of ranking students with grades has been linked to motivation, but formative assessment can promote student success.

Inside the Black Box: Raising Standards Through Formative Assessment
Black, P., & Wiliam, D., (1998) Inside the black box: raising standards through classroom assessment. Phi Delta Kappan, v80 n2 p139-44 Oct 1998. Retrieved November 9, 2012 from

Firm evidence shows that formative assessment is an essential ingredient of classroom work and that its development can raise achievement standards. Achieving this goal demands a four-point scheme for teacher development: learning from development, a slow, yet steady dissemination process, reduction of obstacles, and substantive research efforts.

The Value of Formative Assessment

An article from the National Center for Fair & Open Testing Journal, Fair Test Examiner on the value of Formative Assessment.

This short article could easily be used as a "jigsaw" in a professional development session.


Assessment Training Institute/Educational Testing Service (ATI/ETI)

Rick J. Stiggins founded the Assessment Training Institute. It has since been purchased by Education Testing Services, but continues to house resources for learning teams on formative assessment. They also provide a free newsletter on assessment for learning at this site.


Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory has put together a professional development toolkit for professional development providers on assessment. The activities in the toolkit parallel the chapters in Classroom Assessment for Student Learning and other books produced by the Assessment Training Institute. All of the workshop materials and directions are available on the website.

Printed from the Iowa Department of Education website on April 24, 2018 at 1:09pm.