My Favorite Formative Assessment

So @mathymeg07 posed some questions the other day.  They were good questions, and had some great comments that are worth your time to read.  The first one hit a spot that was near and dear to my heart.

How do you not worry about time?  Or how can I better plan or pace my class time? 

I promise to eventually get to my favorite formative assessment.  First I want to describe how it became to be my favorite.

One of the things that really bugs me about pacing out a class period is doing an activity without a purpose.  I don’t have the perfect answer as to which activities are the most valuable for class time.  In fact I don’t think it’s universal.  The activities must flow with the culture of the teacher and the class.  Two activities that used to bug me were:

  1. Exit Tickets
  2. Warm-ups

Why not Exit-Tickets?

I’m starting with the end here.  And that’s the part that I struggle with the most.  I remember the first time I heard of an exit ticket, it sounded like a hidden treasure.  Then I quickly saw a need to adapt it.  If I could have a class complete a quick write assessment, I needed to be able to look through it (quickly), and address issues of misunderstanding so that feedback would be fresh and current with context.  The exit ticket turned into a quick write assessment I went through as students started some type of independent practice.  I approached students that seemed to struggle with the quick write, or helped redirect misconceptions.

This took too long.  It felt like trying to finish a pile of grading that would grow faster than I had time for.  If I couldn’t assess quickly and address the issues immediately, how purposeful would it be to bring it up the following day, 24 hours after the experience.  David Wees gives some comments on the value of feedback in the moment if you’d like read more.  So I stopped using quick writes as a form of assessment.  It wasn’t a bad activity, just didn’t make sense to me in terms of formative assessment.

What’s wrong with warm-ups?

When we think warm-ups, there’s an inherent purpose.  I think educators understand that purpose of activating prior knowledge or sparking conversation.  Those that stick to the purpose of warm-ups can make this work, and sadly there are instances when a “warm-up” turns into the diluted time filler so that teachers can take attendance.

(imagine finger quoting here, or just look at Dr. Evil)

“Warm – ups”

A standard warm up

Sometimes I fear that a warm-up may serve as just a reminder for what a student has forgotten, or even worse never even learned in the first place.  Then we as teachers feel better about our classrooms because we reviewed it.  (More finger quotes, but you can just imagine them this time).

If we really want to warm-up a student, it needs to be something consistent in content over multiple days, and consistent in structure.  Sadie’s counting circles does this in a pretty awesome way.  A warm-up should help build the student’s confidence, structured in such a way that growth is built in, and it leads into further learning through a strong foundation.

Warm-ups should not be a reminder of failure.

Don’t get me wrong, formative assessment and growth activities require failure in their nature.  However, the activity is then combined with feedback and opportunity for growth.  Failure is encouraged, so long as it is a step in learning, not a finish line.

So what makes a good formative assessment? (and replaces warm-ups and exit tickets)

I was inspired by Dan Meyer and Chris Shore.  You know that I really stole it from them, just like any other teacher would.  Here’s the gist:

  1. Warm-up at start of class
  2. Skill/standard based grading assessment.
  3. Topic is always from week prior.
  4. Success erases failures (formative, not summative).
  5. Difficulty progresses throughout week.Student must pass highest level, or pass multiple times for full score.  Otherwise intermediate score for passing moderate skill level and/or only passing one time.
  6. Developing a question bank takes time, but it’s worth it.

I’m going to address each point on it’s purpose.

  1. I still did a “warm-up”.  I was able to take attendance and other administrative duties as needed.  I let the kids talk every day, (except for the summative experience on Fridays).
  2. Students were completing quick assessments on discrete skills.  Dan gives his opinion on Standards Based Grading, which this is a derivative of.  It differs in that the quiz is the same for every student on that given week.  However, a student can return to any skill/standard (outside of class time) up until the day of summative grades at semester end.
  3. Letting the students wrestle with a topic for a week meant that they were now ready for an assessment experience with it.  This delay and the numerous attempts also gave flexibility so that students could work through absences and keep current with content.
  4. Growth, it’s a mindset.  We need to encourage it by rewarding effort and encouraging multiple attempts.  Students would trade and grade papers Monday through Thursday with guided feedback from the instructor.  I would model correct and incorrect responses based on what I had observed from walking around the room after taking attendance.  Students would write in feedback for each other in colored pencil/ink.
  5. I wanted to have some incentive for students to continue practicing and growing in each standard/skill.  Friday would be the most challenging presentation of the exercise.  In order to receive full scores, the student had to perform on that level.  Passing on Monday or Tuesday still received partial credit.
  6. These formative skill assessments often were drawn out of sample questions from high stakes standardized tests, standards list like these (1,2,3).  Writing the questions took significant time.  Knowing that my students were retaining foundational skills, and learning that growth gets rewarded were invaluable to me.

I have lapsed from time to time in implementing my Skill of the Week Assessment.  This last year I was much more experimental, trying multiple activities and formats.  Given that CA had no state test for Spring 2014, I felt a desire, and even need, to try new things without any pressure from standards on a standardized test.  I learned, however, how significant the Skill of the Week was.  My students missed it, because they thought it helped prepare them for material and gave them good feedback on how to identify and self correct errors in calculations.  I don’t regret experimenting.  It was a necessary part of my growth.  But I do plan to find every opportunity to get meaningful, formative assessment back into the classroom.


Remember that epic yoga ball fail.  With opportunity for growth, and appropriate feedback, you may eventually get something that looks like this:

I plan to update this post later with resources and samples of slide decks for the Skills of the week I used.  Those should replace this text here at the bottom.  I’d also invite others to share resources and/or methods they’ve used in successful formative assessment.

Here is a link to a folder with a sample of slides I would use:


About Mr-Butler

Math Geek Volleyballer Crochet Crazy

Posted on August 19, 2014, in Assessment, Good Teaching, Reflection and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Thank you so much for your write-up. I’m trying to figure out the best tactic to make this work within the requirements set forth for our bellringers. But you definitely got some good wheels turning in my head!

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