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Formative Assessment in a Digital Age

by Clarissa Plair, PhD on October 26, 2016


In many arenas, the word assessment has a negative connotation; however, it is not a bad word. Assessment is a systematic process that is used by educators to gather data to evaluate instruction. Educators use the data to measure and document student progress toward a goal or standard, to evaluate the effectiveness of programs, and to determine if instructional goals have been met.

There is a plethora of research on various forms of assessment that impact student learning. Each of these forms has a specific purpose in the field of education. It is important to understand the difference between the types of assessment and how teachers use assessments and the data results to facilitate student learning.


There are three forms of assessment: diagnostic, formative, and summative.

Diagnostic assessment is typically given at the beginning of the school year and provides information about a student’s prior knowledge, strengths in a content area, and misconceptions. This type of assessment provides a baseline for understanding how much learning has taken place during a course of study. It is designed to help the teacher improve the learner’s performance and his or her level of achievement by identifying gaps in learning.

Black and Wiliam postulate that formative assessment includes “all those activities undertaken by teachers, and/or by their students, which provide information to be used as feedback to modify the teaching and learning activities in which they are engaged.”1 Formative assessment, designed to monitor student learning during instruction and to assist teachers in identifying student instructional needs, allows teachers to provide ongoing instruction aimed at improving student outcomes.

Formative assessments that are really miniature summative assessments, designed in large part to improve performance on summative assessments, are quite different from formative assessments that “occur at or near the point of instruction, allowing teachers and students to make the right decisions about teaching and learning at the right time for the right reasons.”2

Formative assessment can also serve teachers by providing information about the effectiveness of interventions.

Summative assessment is designed to evaluate student learning and usually occurs after teaching and learning are completed. It is used to compare student learning to mastery of a standard. This type of assessment is tied to high-stakes testing, including state assessments, nationally normed tests, interim assessments, end-of-year assessments, and even final exams. Summative assessments give students a final grade based on their academic performance during a specific time period.

Each type of assessment has a place in the educational system; however, the one that research points to as best for improving student outcomes is assessment FOR learningformative assessmentwhich provides feedback for teachers and students while teaching and learning are occurring.



1 Black, Paul, and Dylan Wiliam. “Inside the Black Box: Raising Standards through Classroom Assessment.” Phi Delta Kappan 80.2 (1998): 139148.

2 Gallagher, Chris W. “Kairos and Informative Assessment: Rethinking the Formative/Summative Distinction in Nebraska.” Theory into Practice 48 (2008): 8188.

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Topics: Blended Learning, Formative Assessment