The Formative Assessment Process: A Guide for Parents

The Maryland definition:

Formative Assessment is a process used by teachers and students during instruction that provides feedback to adjust ongoing teaching and learning to improve students’ achievement of intended instructional outcomes.


Formative assessment can help to differentiate instruction, based on self-assessment and goal-setting, so students know how to move learning forward on their own. It is capable of assisting both teaching and learning while they occur.

Classroom assessment for student learning … turns the classroom assessment process and its results into an instructional intervention designed to increase, not merely monitor, student confidence, motivation, and learning.

Stiggins (2008) (additional information at

It asks the three questions (Thompson & Wiliam, 2007):

  1. Where is the learner going?
  2. Where is the learner right now?
  3. How will the learner get there?

Assessment is the bridge between teaching and learning—it is only through assessment that we can find out whether what has happened in the classroom has produced the learning we intended.

Dylan Wiliam

Formative assessment includes all of the ways that teachers check to see if students are understanding the content.

Teachers and students work collaboratively to create goals for learning and criteria for success, use self and peer assessment and feedback to determine where they are in their learning, and as partners, plan for next steps.

By working together in this process, students become owners of their own learning which empowers them to seek assistance or extension as needed.

Key terms


Self-regulation — When students actively monitor their learning goals, use feedback to determine next steps, and devise tactics and strategies to reach them.

Growth mindset — The belief that ability is not fixed and talentscan be developed through hard work, good strategies, and feedback.

Learning goal — Statements of intended learning, what students should know and be able to do.

Success criteria — Describes what success looks like when the learning goal is reached.

Learning progression — a pathway that maps out a specific sequence of knowledge and skills that students are expected to learn.


  Learning progressions   clearly articulate the pathway typical students travel to meet the learning goal.

  Learning goals and success criteria   are clearly defined and shared with students.

  Descriptive feedback   is evidence based and aligned to learning goals and success criteria.

  Self and peer-assessment   are used frequently to encourage students to understand and internalize success criteria.

  Collaboration   in the classroom creates a culture in which teachers and students are partners in learning.

Descriptive feedback is evidence based, specific, references the success criteria and learning goals, causes thinking, is actionable, leads to next steps, and does not include grades.


Examining the Process


It is framed by the three questions to the right, which guide students and teachers in the learning process.

Where am I going? To clarify, students & teachers:

  • Create learning goals and criteria for success in attaining those goals
  • Develop learning progressions to clearly explain the path to meeting the learning goal

Where am I now? To determine, students & teachers:

  • Use self and peer assessment to encourage students to understand and interpret the success criteria
  • Deliver evidence based, timely descriptive feedback that is linked to the intended instructional outcomes

How do I close the gap? The student & teachers will:

  • Collaborate as partners in learning to determine how to move past misconceptions and errors
  • Ensure that descriptive feedback is actionable and results in planning of next steps
  • Encourage self-regulation to decide on learning goals, devise tactics and strategies to reach them, and produce work

The formative assessment process helps students intentionally harness the workings of their own minds to generate motivation to learn.

Moss & Brookhart (2009)

The Power & Importance of Feedback

Students often experience grading as evaluation and judgment. To be most effective, feedback must be experienced as information and description.

Effective feedback describes types of strengths and areas for growth in work and suggests strategies students might use to take next steps.

  Descriptive feedback   is the heart of formative assessment and all learning; without useful, actionable feedback a learner can’t progress. It does not take the place of grades, but instead helps students move their learning forward.

What Formative Feedback Is What Formative Feedback Is Not
Relates to learning content General comment
Identifies strengths and areas for growth Edits of mistakes
Timely: it can be used immediately to improve progress Provided after learning is over; at the end
Descriptive: specific, or in the form of questions Coded: grades, scores, checkmarks, judgments

“The quality of feedback, rather than its existence or absence, is what determines its power.” Bangert-Downs, Kulik, Kulik & Morgan (1991)

Characteristics of Effective Feedback

  1.  Aligns to content:  Aligns to the learning goals, the success criteria, and the learning progression. It accurately describes what the students have done well using evidence from their work products.
  2.  Just right amount:  Limited and prioritized on the most important next steps, so that students have the right amount of information with which to move forward. Feedback provides timely information throughout the learning sequence.
  3.  Leads to next steps:  Can be readily implemented by students. It provides hints, clues, and guidance to help move learning forward. Teachers ensure that students have structured time to respond to feedback.
  4.  Supports self-regulation:  Helps students learn how to monitor and self-correct their work, and helps them know when and how to apply learning strategies. To develop self-regulation skills, students must have regular opportunities to self-assess.

Formative Assessment & Grading

What is the purpose of grades?

“The primary goal of grading and reporting is communication. … Grading and reporting certify attainment of learning goals, identify where additional work is needed, and provide a basis for improvement efforts.” (Guskey & Marzano)

Educators use grades to:

  • Communicate learning and progress towards learning goals to students and parents
  • Empower students to achieve success at the next level
  • Communicate current level of performance to inform future work
  • Provide guidance to teachers for instructional planning
  • Inform schools, districts, and external organizations of student learning

Why a focus on feedback instead of grades?

If a paper is returned with both a grade and a comment, many students will pay attention to the grade and ignore the comment. The grade “trumps” the comment; the student will read a comment that the teacher intended to be descriptive as an explanation of the grade. Descriptive comments have the best chance of being read as descriptive if they are not accompanied by a grade.

By using formative assessment, a student’s grades will more accurately reflect their understanding of learning outcomes.

Supporting Formative Assessment in School and at Home

You can ask some simple questions to start the conversation:

  • How do students create goals throughout the year?
  • How does my child know the expectations for his or her work?
  • Are there rubrics, models, and exemplars provided?
  • How/when do students change or adjust goals as their learning progresses?
  • How is descriptive feedback provided to students?
  • How do you assess students’ understanding of concepts?
  • What steps or interventions should be put in place to move my child’s learning forward?
  • How exactly is learning personalized in your classroom? In the school?
  • What kinds of questions do you suggest that I ask my child on a daily basis about your class?

Supporting formative assessment at home:

  • Shift from providing feedback on grades and rankings to reinforcing a growth mindset by encouraging your child to “practice, practice, practice” and learn from their mistakes.
  • Model descriptive feedback at home and ask your child to do the same.
  • Review the feedback on their work with them- how will they use it to move forward?
  • Ask your child specific questions about the learning goals, success criteria, and where they fall on their learning progression. How will they move to the next level? What are their goals?
  • Encourage your child to set specific, measurable goals for activities outside of school.

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