what is formative assessment?

The Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) has established the Formative Assessment for Students and Teachers State Collaborative on Assessment and Student Standards (FAST SCASS). This group, which has been leading the way in formative assessment for over 15 years, adopted the following updated definition of formative assessment on June 28, 2017.

The definition goes on to describe that effective use of the formative assessment process requires students and teachers to integrate the following practices in a collaborative and respectful classroom environment:

Featured Practices:

Using evidence and feedback to move learning forward by adjusting learning strategies or instructional next steps

Featured Practices:

Clarifying learning targets within a broader progression of learning

Featured Practices:

Eliciting and analyzing evidence of student understanding

Featured Practices:

Engaging in self-assessment, self-reflection and peer assessment

Featured Practices:

Providing actionable feedback

how it all started


In 2015, the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation engaged Education First to work with teachers in the Austin, Denver and Metro Nashville school districts to learn how, and how well, teachers in these districts use data to inform instruction on a daily basis. Data was gathered from this project and detailed in Formative Assessment in the Classroom, published May 2016, along with teacher stories and lessons learned.

The first phase of the work led to the development of this project, entitled How I Know: Designing Meaningful Formative Assessment Practice. Austin ISD, Dallas ISD, and Tulsa Public Schools are participating in this new project to identify, scale and share successful approaches for designing formative assessment practice in classrooms participating in the How I Know initiative. Joining the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation in supporting these districts are several partners, including Brookhart Enterprises, Education First, Getting Smart and WestEd.

  •  Michal & Susan Dell Foundation
  • Education First
  • Getting Smart
  • WestEd

Key findings

The study’s goal was to understand what was happening in the classroom each day, and how teachers were thinking about formative assessment.

View Key Findings
  1. Uneven practice

    Teachers regularly use some types of formative assessment strategies, but their implementation of their practice is uneven. In general, teachers need more support and practice to improve effectiveness. This is particularly true in important areas such as inviting student participation and ownership of learning. One example is frequency: most teachers typically engage in formative assessment on a weekly basis when, ideally, they would do so on a daily basis by integrating formative assessment into regular classroom teaching and learning routines.

  1. Insufficient support

    Teachers report that the support provided by districts for formative assessment is insufficient, and that they most often turn to their colleagues for support to improve their formative assessment strategies. While all of the involved districts provided some form of support for formative assessment practice, there was not always agreement regarding definitions or prioritization for ongoing support.

  1. Barriers to implementation

    Significant barriers to implementing effective formative assessment practice still exist. The barriers cited—including time, training and resources—reflect common structural, technical and attitudinal changes encountered by those making a fundamental shift in instructional practice.

  1. Strong relationship to use of technology

    Teachers who used formative assessment practices more frequently also reported more use of technology, especially if they had school or district support. While overall technology usage by teachers across study districts was consistently low, there was a correlation between higher usage and formative assessment practice. In order to effectively use technology for formative assessment, teachers need to have a working knowledge of formative assessment principles.

As good news for what’s ahead, the study also shows that teachers are optimistic about their abilities to understand and use formative assessment in the classroom, believe their curriculum supports formative assessment and individualized instruction, and feel they have administrative support to incorporate formative assessment into their teaching practice.

The How I Know Project

Our Four-Phased Approach

With the ultimate goal of scaling and sustaining formative assessment practice—and equipping districts, school leaders and teachers to work together to do so—the following phases build upon each other and support deep understanding:

  1. Project Design

    District design teams and external partners work across teams to set practice improvement goals, create professional development plans based on observations, determine conditions for success and establish a professional network.

  2. Professional Practice Improvement

    Participating teachers will focus on meeting formative assessment practice improvement goals by completing individualized professional development that is aligned with goals and receiving forward-looking feedback regarding classroom practice. All teams will look toward year two by identifying technology vendors and lessons learned.

  3. Professional Practice Integration

    The project focus will shift to supporting teachers to integrate formative assessment into their daily classroom routine. With support from subject matter experts, teachers will complete additional individualized professional development, receive feedback, implement technology tools and continue to identify lessons learned.

  4. Scalability and Sustainability

    District design teams and external partners will continue to work together toward the ultimate goal of scaling strategies, practices, professional development and supporting conditions. This will include dissemination of project learnings along with scaling plans for each district.

Learn More

Head to our resources page to see how teachers across the country are improving their formative assessment practice.

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