How Should We Assess Students in Fall 2020? Formative Assessment Wins Again.


Educational Assessment School Disruption Formative Assessment Practices Supporting Instruction Assessment COVID-19 Response

How Should We Assess Students in Fall 2020? Formative Assessment Wins Again.

In recent weeks, we have been pleased to feature several CenterLine posts by Center associates and guest authors addressing how states, districts, and schools should consider using assessment to support instruction when school begins again in the fall. In this post, former Center Associate Susan Lyons shares her perspective on this important topic.

How do we begin fall 2020? How do we know where students are in their learning, given all the changes and uncertainties caused by COVID-19? We should resist the impulse to administer standardized interim assessments and instead begin with dialogue. Start the year in conversation with our students; listening, asking questions, and gaining insight into their lived experiences and learning over the past six months. Understanding their perspectives and experiences is the most valuable resource for planning and adjusting instruction in fall 2020. The job of educators is to help students build on their existing knowledge by connecting and integrating new ideas. Well-planned formative assessment practice is the most effective assessment tool for supporting the learning leaps we hope to enable this fall.

The recently released assessment guidance for fall 2020 from the Council of Chief State School Officers amplifies the importance of classroom-based pre-assessment. This formative assessment strategy is a way to gather information about what students know about a topic or its prerequisites before introducing new content. A pre-assessment need not be a formal test, but rather, it’s an umbrella term that encompasses any evidence-gathering activity related to prior knowledge.

For example, when beginning a unit on proportional reasoning, a teacher might put a fraction and a ratio on the whiteboard and ask students to explain in their own words what they are, how they are different, and how they are the same (a more in-depth discussion of this can be found in Heritage & Harrison, 2020, p. 98). This type of questioning will allow the teacher to gauge the level of knowledge and facility students have with the concepts and notation associated with proportionality. This practice has the added benefit of signaling to students the value of their prior knowledge for informing and advancing their current learning. Another example of pre-assessment is the use of a simple three-column chart that students can use at the start and throughout their learning to share what they already know about a topic, what they want to know, and to keep track of what they are learning as they progress through a reading, lesson, or unit of study (for an example see Ogle, 1986).

As measurement professionals, what advice should we be prioritizing for state and district leaders? How can they support high-quality formative assessment practices in schools (or remotely) this fall? My answer is the following:

  1. Ensure the intended learning goals for the upcoming academic year are clear and visible for all stakeholders.

Due to the disruption of COVID-19, it is likely necessary and important to reaffirm the commitment to students that they will be working toward learning the grade-level standards in the upcoming academic year. This unequivocal message will provide a clear and unchanged goal for teachers and students as they plan their instruction and learning this year and hopefully, side-step the temptation to spend the first months of the year remediating without introducing new content. Time spent measuring and remediating the knowledge gaps that exist from the lost instructional time and school building closures last spring is better used on grade-level instruction with a focus on embedded formative assessment practice. Let’s not lose the opportunity to bridge the gap to new, rigorous content for our students by spending the fall trying to squeeze even more content into too little time.

  1. Provide time and support for both teachers and students to discuss and reflect on the pathway to those goals and the evidence of progress along the way.

Grade level standards continue to provide clear learning goals, but the path for meeting those standards will inevitably look different this year. Teachers and students will be challenged to find new ways to build on prior learning, reveal misconceptions, provide individualized feedback, and construct knowledge. Teachers with domain expertise and the benefit of experience have at least a general, if not highly developed, idea of how learning progresses throughout a typical academic year in their course(s). Teacher expertise in the ways students gain understanding provides a framework—often implicit—for planning instruction and monitoring learning. This year, however, teachers will need additional time and support to discuss and adjust instruction to reflect the potential new pathways for developing the knowledge necessary for their students to achieve the grade-level content standards.

It may be worthwhile for teachers to explicitly write and revise learning progressions to serve as maps for guiding conversations among colleagues and with students about their learning. Learning progressions are useful tools for planning instruction, gathering evidence of learning, providing effective feedback, supporting self-assessment with students, and determining instructional next steps. Investing in educators to write and use learning progressions is one way to integrate many of the key elements of formative assessment practice into instruction for advancing student learning. Of course, creating the time and space for teachers to collaborate in this way will be an added challenge for districts that are universally facing extraordinary circumstances and constraints this year.

  1. Do not obfuscate high-quality classroom assessment practice by inserting external instruments that provide little insight into student understanding and offer no direction for moving students forward in their learning.

State, district, and school leaders are acutely aware of the importance of instructional time. School building closures last spring, and the potential for continued disruptions in the coming fall heighten this reality. Leaders must fully evaluate the benefits of any assessment instrument before adopting it or requiring its continued use.

There is little research to support the use of interim assessments for improving instruction. They are often marketed as useful for informing instruction, but generally lack the close connection to instruction and curriculum necessary to support learning (Penuel & Shepard, 2016). Student scores on interim assessments may provide reasonable measures of student achievement in the content area, but sub-score or standards-level interpretations are generally unreliable or not supported. Due to these limitations, the time and resources dedicated to external assessment products may be better invested in supporting teachers to cultivate formative assessment practices in their classrooms. Despite the limited immediate value interim assessments offer for daily instruction, interim assessments are often appropriately used to track trends in student achievement for program evaluation and inform school improvement efforts.

Given the unprecedented uncertainties and constraints on schools this fall, I, like many others, recommend that district leaders prioritize assessment practices closest to the classroom with the highest chances of improving student learning.


For high-quality information on formative assessment, you can visit PDK International’s website to request free access to a selected set of formative assessment articles written for teachers. This resource has been made publicly available for a limited time due to COVID-19.

Susan Lyons, Ph.D. is an independent consultant. Please submit comments to


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