Formative Assessment Principles

by Dr. Jason Parker, North Carolina LC Member

“Ideas about assessments have undergone important changes in recent years.  In the new view, assessment and learning are two sides of the same coin….When students engage in assessments, they should learn from those assessments” (National Research Council, 1996, pp. 5-6).  This statement reflects the current mood of the education movement in the United States.  In recent years, teachers and administrators have come to understand that assessment and learning are linked together.  This is far from the prior belief that learning and assessment are two separate entities.  In the race to help teachers become more comfortable with formative assessments, school districts have forgotten one piece of the puzzle.  School districts have neglected to ensure that their teachers are adequately prepared to formatively assess their students (Stiggins, 2002).  In fact, Stiggins (2002) stated that “Few teachers are prepared to face the challenges of classroom assessment because they have not been given the opportunity to learn to do so” (p. 4).  In order to combat this issue, it is important that school districts, school building administrators, and individual teachers are aware of the following principles of the formative assessment process.

Cook (2009), in consultation with the World-class Instructional Design and Assessment (WIDA) Center, published a list of best exercises for formative assessment.  The following list is considered acceptable methods to administer formative assessments in the classroom: technically sound, embedded and ongoing, learning goals, examples, identification of current skills, the identification of future goals, and integrated, dynamic, and rigorous professional development.  Below is a further explanation of each of these components.

Technically sound.  In order for formative assessments to be considered technically sound, Cook (2009) determined that formative assessments have to be valid and reliable.  To be considered valid, formative assessments have to determine what perceptions and skill sets need to be assessed.  In addition to the above, formative assessments become valid when teachers ensure that the assessments are intertwined with the goals of the instruction in addition to being solely concentrated on the learning of the students.  To be considered reliable, formative assessments must be able to be given multiple times while producing the same result.  Furthermore, reliable formative assessments supply teachers and students with data that can be acted upon.

Embedded and ongoing.  Cook (2009) also ascertained that formative assessments must be maintained within the instructional process and be completed throughout the duration of the instruction.  In other words, formative assessments must not be given in isolation; they must be given in a way where students view the assessments as part of the regular instructional process.  Additionally, Cook (2009) stated that formative assessments must be “…a process, not an event” (p. 11).  This means that students must not only be given formative assessments at the beginning or end of an instruction, but formative assessments must be administered throughout each instructional unit.

Learning goals.  In order for formative assessment to be considered effective, Cook (2009) concluded that the learning goals that the students are given must be abundantly unambiguous and specific so students can completely comprehend what is expected of them.  In addition to the above, formative assessments must be suitably arranged so students can scaffold their learning throughout the unit.  Finally, the learning goals for the students must be directly linked to the goals of the instruction.

Examples.  The WIDA (2009) presentation presented information with what type of examples must be used for teachers and students.  For teachers, the rubrics used for student learning must include illustrations for students so they can understand how the levels within the rubric are different.  Additionally, teachers must be willing to use student examples when introducing a topic or project so students can connect to the expectations while they are being discussed.  For students, teachers should be willing to grant access to the instruments that will be used to assess their performance.  In addition to the instrument availability, students should also be instructed in how to understand the rubrics and apply the information included on the rubrics to their own work.

Current skills, future goals, and integrated.  According to Cook (2009), teachers should dedicate a portion of their class time to ensure students are aware of their current capabilities and proficiencies.  Teachers should utilize time during conferences to underscore the abilities of the students.  While reviewing the current status of the students, the teacher should also seek to share the future goals of the students.  The discussion of the students’ future goals should be completed with precision so students can determine the exact path they need to take.  Cook (2009) stated that teachers need to be mindful to inform students of their “next steps” (p. 15) so the learning process can continue.  However, the same researcher noted that it is important to inform students in familiar terms of the next process in their learning progression.  While Cook (2009) inferred that formative assessments should not be exact replicas of other assessments used at the school, he did imply that formative assessments should be somewhat related with the other assessments.  According to Cook (2009), formative assessments should have a direct impact on the students’ performances on benchmark assessments.  The students’ performances on benchmarks should have a direct impact on the students’ performances on summative assessments.

Dynamic and rigorous professional development.  Cook (2009) alluded to the fact that formative assessments should not be difficult for teachers to administer to students.  In fact, the researcher implied that formative assessments should easily conform to the regular classroom schedule.  Formative assessments should not have to be scheduled or done outside of the regular instructional setting.


NC FALCON. Teachers in North Carolina are currently completing staff development to ensure the teachers in the state understand the importance of formative assessment (NCDPI, 2011).  The staff development initiative is referred to as NC FALCON.  This acronym stands for North Carolina’s Formative Assessment Learning Community’s Online Network.  NC FALCON, which is delivered online, has participants complete the program in modules.  The local school districts select personnel, usually instructional coaches, to help facilitate the program.  The goal of this program is to get every teacher in the state to a point where they see the value of formative assessment and begin to use it as a daily practice in their classroom.

My school is has just completed the first of four modules for NC FALCON. The first module was received well by the teachers. I am anxious to see what classroom changes come about as a result of NC FALCON.


Cook, H. G. (2009).  Formative assessment: Best practices part one.  Presentation at the Elluminate Session, Pennsylvania Department of Education.

National Research Council. (1996).  National science education standards. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. (2011).  NC FALCON.  Retrieved from

Stiggins, R. J. (2002).  Assessment crisis: The absence of assessment for learning.  Phi Delta Kappan, 83(10), 758-765.

World-Class Instructional Design and Assessment. (2009).  Focus of formative assessment.  Wisconsin Center of Education Research, 1(2).  Retrieved from



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