Introduction: Why Formative Assessment? Issues and Opportunities

“Included among the understandings that encompass assessment literacy are teacher expectations related to the identification, selection, or creation of assessments designed for monitoring student growth and the diagnosis of specific student needs, which is essentially what this book is all about–formative assessment.” The Formative 5, page 3

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Today we are kicking off this summer’s Book Study Monday. I hope you’ve been enjoying The Formative 5: Everyday Assessment Techniques for Every Math Classroom by Skip Fennell, Beth Kobett, and Jonathan Wray as much as I have been. It’s an easy, practical read, and I’m looking forward to a lively discussion!

Reading schedule


  1. Follow the reading guide posted above. Each Monday listed on the schedule, I will publish a post with my thoughts. I’m planning to use the format suggested in the book study guide included at the back of the book (Sharing, Aha!, and Let’s Try!).
  2. Participate by adding a comment to this post or by replying to the comments of others. Your comment will be displayed once approved.
  3. Use the hashtag #Formative5BookStudy to participate in a slow Twitter chat. Search on the hashtag anytime during the week to follow the conversation. I will be posting questions throughout the week, and you can add your thoughts using the same hashtag, as well as the hashtag #Formative5, or just read what others are saying. If you haven’t used Twitter for professional development, this is a great way to start.


The idea that there is such a thing as assessment literacy was new to me. The authors describe it as “…being able to create, select, and effectively use classroom assessments and being able to select and effectively interpret and use results from external summative assessments.” To understand assessment literacy, it’s important to differentiate between summative and formative assessments. I have been involved in way too many interviews where prospective teachers could not articulate the difference. As noted toward the bottom of page 5, “…many characterize summative assessments as assessments of learning and formative assessments as assessments for learning.” This book focuses on the latter, formative assessments. Numerous times throughout the chapter the authors emphasize that formative assessment is day-to-day, ongoing, based on what you are teaching, and occurs within and between lessons. In other words, formative assessment drives instruction. So, if we are to have assessment literacy, we need to be able to “create, select, and effectively use” formative assessments to guide student learning. One of the issues the authors mention is that “there were so many suggestions and ideas related to formative assessment that understanding and using them was never well understood.” (page 10 & 11). That’s exactly what drew me to this book! It presents five powerful assessment routines that can immediately impact student growth. I can handle five!


There’s no doubt that my aha! moment was the idea that formative assessment “…is integral to both planning and teaching.” (page 5) If we are only planning for content, our planning is incomplete. Reading about the connection between planning and assessment, which was mentioned numerous times throughout the chapter, made me painfully aware that my approach to formative assessment in the past has been completely random–a question off the top of my head here, an exit ticket there. The idea of planning for formative assessment makes perfect sense! The paragraph on page 11 really lays it all out. To be effective in our instruction, we must have an “…understanding of the mathematical content and pedagogical knowledge related to your grade level and beyond.” What we’re talking about here is a powerful planning conversation that includes discussions about  content, best practices for instruction, and assessment.

Let’s Try!

I guess it makes sense that my Let’s Try! is directly related to my Aha!. In my current position, I plan with the grade level teachers at my school. Leading into next year, I want to think about how to best support the teachers to increase the effectiveness of the planning process. What can I do to provide them the resources that will allow us all to develop deep content knowledge, and how can I help them plan for formative assessment? A great resource for content is the Teaching Student-Centered Math series, what I have always though of as simply the Van de Walle books. I purchased them for each of my teachers at the end of the year, and I’m sure they will provide the basis for many great planning conversations! Also, as I read through the chapters on the specific formative assessment techniques in this book, I hope to develop some assessment ideas for our first unit or two in the fall.

Your Turn

I’m excited to hear what others thought about this introductory chapter! Remember, add comments here or on Twitter using the hashtags #Formative5BookStudy and #Formative5.


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  1. After reading the introduction, it totally makes sense to me that we need to be more intentional when planning and think about our formative assessment. I always knew that formative assessment should drive our instruction, but driving our planning? As I said, it makes sense to start by what we want our students to be able to do and know, think about how we are going to assess they are mastering the skills or concepts and plan accordingly.

    1. I love the word intentional! And it’s interesting, I’ve been involved in discussions about summative assessment during planning, but not formative. Go figure.

  2. Page 11 discusses the importance of learning trajectories to insure developmental appropriateness as well as helping students with prerequisite skills or to even enhance their learning of a specific topic. Do you have a recommended source for these trajectories? If so, I would greatly appreciate your thoughts. My main area would be PreK-2nd.

    1. The Van de Walle book I referenced in the post is a great resource. Also, just looking at the standards from the grades before and after yours can be a big help.

      1. Thank you so much for this excellent resource. I just watched the first 2 videos and it helped to solidify some thoughts. I will definitely share this link with fellow staff.

  3. “The point here is that assessment must be an everyday component of what you do as you plan and teach.” (P.10)
    It’s ironic to me that this was my “aha!” You would think that since most teachers know that assessment is an important part of their teaching they would also know that it is equally as important to be intentional about planning those assessments. Yet, it happens not as often as we think.
    My “let’s try!” is that I hope to share these 5 (yes, I’m SO excited about only 5) strategies with the teachers on my campus next year, and support them in being more INTENTIONAL about planning their formative assessments.

    1. My “aha” moment was just reflecting on how I have been using exit tickets and observations to help me see if students were “getting” the concepts I was teaching. I thave been somewhat haphazard about my formative assessments. It became obious to me that I need to spend way more time this year being intentional about my assessments during lessons! This then became my “let’s try.”

  4. While reading the introduction, I kept pounding the table while saying, “Yes, yes, yes!” Meaning, I have believed in formative assessment since I first began teaching. I do believe it IS the force that drives the learning. As has been stated, I didn’t actually plan for it. That is a key factor that was missing and my big aha moment.

    Also as I read this section, I could not help but compare it to when “Learning Targets” became a major tool to learning. The aha moments where amazing in both cases. Learning targets let the kids in on what they were suppose to learn and how they would know if they met their target. Formative assessments let me know if I am hitting the target.

    Finally, the author states facts, gives data, and then gives the tools (Planning guide and other resources on the internet) to make it happen in your classroom.

    1. Do you or anyone else have any online information/resources about Learning Targets. I’m new to public school this year and while I hear a lot of people talk about it, I don’t actually know much about it! I suspect there’s also a way to use it to deeply impact your teaching, but it’s been made into something teachers do because they have to. Thanks!

  5. As I was reading this chapter I kept thinking to myself “I already use formative assessment in my math classroom” but realize that it’s usually not planned for and often does not translate from one class to the other. When I do have a planned formative assessment, it is one that is already planned for in the lesson that has been written out for me.
    I look forward seeing how I can plan for this while at the same time maintaining the pace that is expected of me. I am excited to bring this knowledge back to my colleagues who are interested in how formative assessment can help with planning.

    1. I teach with Lauren and absolutely agree. There are some formative assessments built into our curriculum, mostly in the form of Exit Tickets. I am interested in learning how to create more of them myself and how to use them more organically instead of as prescribed. I think the information will make for much more productive learning periods.

  6. We are implementing PLC next year at our school and a lot of what we talked about this past year was assessments, using common assessments and how those will help us drive our instruction. this first chapter just reinforces that idea of using assessments to drive our instruction. One big take away I had from this first chapter is the need to be more intentional when using the formative assessments. This chapter reminded me of using UBD when planning, setting those goals of where you want the kids to be and then designing the lessons around getting the kids to that goal.

    1. I think you make an excellent point. We have moved toward common assessments and analyzing the data from those tests, but that’s too late in the process to impact what the students are learning right now.

  7. My aha moment in this chapter was that FA not only gives the teacher information to drive instruction, but also, “…help students, all students, take an active role in and ownership of their learning.” (p.8) Too often I hear from fellow teachers that students are disengaged in lessons and just want to be “spoon-fed”. The strategies in this book will give teachers a concrete way to increase the level of student engagement in the classroom.

    I also thought it was interesting that the authors pointed out that an exit task is different than an exit ticket. I think that with all the “suggestions and ideas related to FA” (p.10) out there, FA can easily get watered down as a quick procedural math question. FA should dig deeper to reveal conceptual understanding.

    Lastly, I think the 5 key strategies for effective use of assessment (p.7) are great points to keep close to your planning book. This was a good chapter. I’m excited to dig into each strategy.

    1. I like your thoughts about FA getting watered down as a quick procedural math question. We need to develop the depth of knowledge in our FA that we want our students to obtain.

    2. I agree with you. Exit tickets can’t give all of the information that we need to plan for further instruction like exit tasks can. I realized that many of us (myself included) were treating these assessments as one and the same.

  8. When reading this chapter the aha! I got was that I need to plan for formative assessments. I think as teachers we all do some type of formative assessment but we do not plan for it!! I also think that I do not do it as much at the beginning of a unit as I do it as that in which is too late just like the chapter said.

    1. Great reflection on your part! I love that you thought about the timing of your formative assessments. That’s something you can easily adjust.

  9. I loved the idea of “assessment literacy.” I’ve never thought of that before. I’m hoping this book will educate me in this area so that I can help others. One quote that was particularly poignant to me was “Formative assessment? I just thought it was something I was required to do.” We need to make it so much more than just that.

    1. Teachers must also understand that the formative assessment should be used as feedback to modify your teaching and the student learning. Page 5. We can do all the formative assessments we want, but if we don’t use the feedback to modify our teaching the assessment has no real value! I see teachers using exit slips all the time and as the students leave they throw them away. It’s not busy work; it’s to help you know where to go next.

  10. Teachers must also understand that the formative assessment should be used as feedback to modify your teaching and the student learning. Page 5. We can do all the formative assessments we want, but if we don’t use the feedback to modify our teaching the assessment has no real value! I see teachers using exit slips all the time and as the students leave they throw them away. It’s not busy work; it’s to help you know where to go next.

  11. Many teachers do not realize the value of formative assessments. It is used as feedback for the teachers to modify their teaching and for the students to modify their learning. I see teachers using assessments such as exit slips. As the students leave the room, they just throw them away. It is not busy work. It is valuable information to let you know where you need to go next in your teaching. For the students, it lets them know what they need to continue to work on.

  12. School just ended for me for summer,. Normally, my brain would need time to regenerate. However, beginning to read this book, I’m excited for what’s next and can’t wait to plan. I think the 5 strategies are going to be career changers for me as I teach Middle School Math. I have always been a pbl teacher. This will help me to be more intentional in my formative assessment. Our building has been all about the cookie cutter assessment and that has been a struggle for me.

  13. I really like the analogy of the painter’s palette for formative assessment techniques. It’s not a matter of trying too many different strategies, but focusing on a few truly effective ones in a way that makes sense for my classroom and students. I’m looking forward to learning more about these techniques and being more intentional in my instructional planning and formative assessment.

  14. I had a similar Aha! about the relationship between formative assessment and planning/instruction. I tend to think of the 3 components as a cycle that repeats as needed. For formative assessment to be effective, it needs to be planned for. It needs to be aligned to grade-level standards, as does a teacher’s instruction. After giving assessments, they must be analyzed, and a new plan for instruction must be created based on the data from that assessment.

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