How do You Say Formative?

Students engaging in a classroom activity


If there is one thing that education cannot get enough of, it is labels.

Labels help us to define and sort a collection of tasks and materials that allow us to do the most magical things. There are “bellringers” and “exit tickets,” and “quizzes,” but no label has a looser definition than “formative.” Formative means different things to different districts, to different schools, to different departments within schools, even from room-to-room.  

From the NGSS (Next Generation Science Standards) criteria, “Formative assessment is a process used by teachers and students during instruction that provides feedback to adjust ongoing teaching and learning to improve students’ achievement of intended instructional outcomes.” Clear as mud, right?  

This ambiguity is even more perplexing in our science classrooms. The variety of experiences we provide our students, the opportunities to assess different modalities, and the 3-D structure of NGSS Performance Expectations open many doors but provide few concrete solutions.  

Sometimes we need to remind ourselves what formative is not. Formative assessment not designed to fill gradebooks or measure progress, it is a process that should provide information to promote student proficiency, not to judge Formative assessment needs to be assessment FOR learning, not necessarily assessment OF learning.

Students in school

At the end of the day, formative assessment will be the most student-centered activity in our classroom. It is a conversation between the teacher and the student, with the student leading the discussion. We will see our maximum utility by providing students with feedback that can confirm, tune up, or restructure learning. 

When we say “Formative” our students need to hear “For-You.”