Supporting the implementation of formative assessment

Supporting the Implementation of Formative Assessment

What Impedes the Use of Formative Assessment Processes to Accelerate Student Learning?

If we know that formative assessment processes have the single largest effect on student achievement outcomes, more than any other single intervention, and we do, what often impedes the implementation of high-quality formative assessment processes in classrooms? The other side of this coin is: what supports the implementation of formative assessment to accelerate student learning? 

Implementation of Formative Assessment Processes: Barriers & Facilitators 

This post focuses on five key implementation barriers/facilitators that support the use of formative assessment processes to accelerate learning. These are likely not the only barriers/facilitators; however, it is difficult to imagine a scenario where if these five aspects were addressed that student learning would not accelerate.

  1. Teacher Knowledge (Standards, Pedagogy, Content Expertise, & Assessment Literacy)
  2. High-Quality Curriculum & Other Instructional Materials
  3. Local Policies Related to Curriculum Pacing & Grading
  4. School Structures that Support Educator Collaboration & Extra Instructional Time
  5. Leadership Support & Integration with Teacher Evaluation & Supervision

The list starts from the center of classroom interactions among the student, the teacher, and the content, and expands to include those enabling structures, conditions and policy contexts that support implementation. A follow-up post will address what state and local education agencies can do to address these five implementation barriers/facilitators. 

Teacher Knowledge (Standards, Pedagogy, Content Expertise, and Assessment Literacy)

It seems obvious to say that teacher pedagogical content knowledge and knowledge of the content and performance standards are at the center of the teaching and learning enterprise. A teacher cannot hope to accelerate student learning and help close achievement gaps without deep knowledge of what students should be learning and knowing how to determine if students are making sufficient progress toward proficiency. This level of understanding is where teachers’ classroom assessment capacities are so important. 

Imagine a brave new world where every teacher had a deep understanding of the state content and performance standards (where they were going), the underlying learning progressions (how they could help students get there), and what they would ask students that would elicit evidence of current understandings (what students currently know and can do). What will it take to make that world a reality? 

High-Quality Curriculum & Other Instructional Materials

Many erroneous beliefs persist about curriculum. Curriculum is not the textbook. Curriculum is the set of instructional materials and resources used by classroom educators to facilitate student learning of the state content standards. It may include the use of a textbook, but it likely should also include other high-quality instructional and supplemental materials and resources. 

The link between formative assessment processes and high-quality instructional materials is that teachers should not have to develop their instructional materials from scratch or search the depths of the internet for them. Equity values are better served when all teachers are provided baseline instructional materials and resources that support the implementation of high-quality formative assessment processes. For example, instructional materials can provide ideas to teachers related to engineering effective activities that elicit evidence of student learning strengths and needs, as well as what a teacher might look for in student work products, discussions, or activities that could guide next instructional actions. 

This lack of an explicit connection to instructional activities is why so-called “formative” assessment item banks don’t work as intended. Item banks are typically disconnected from the enacted curriculum. As such, they provide decontextualized evidence that teachers often do not know how to interpret to inform whether they should adjust or monitor what they are currently teaching. Additionally, many item banks are filled with selected response items, an item format that typically provides very little information a teacher can use to understand what a student knows and can do, and at what depth. 

Local Policies Related to Curriculum Pacing & Grading

Pacing guides dictate what content, topics, and/or standards must be covered by a specific time during the school year. Pacing guides are often daily, or sometimes weekly, overviews of what teachers are supposed to teach to ensure that the breadth of the state content standards are covered by the end of the year. 

A pacing guide requires all teachers in a particular grade level/subject area to be at the same place in the curriculum at the same time, regardless of students served. 

Pacing guides work at cross purposes with formative assessment processes because teachers need flexibility to adjust their instruction based on the formative feedback gathered. Without such flexibility, evidence of student learning strengths and needs may be collected and even analyzed, but then teachers are unable to slow down, re-teach, or speed up for all or some students. The formative feedback never has an opportunity to loop around and inform next instructional steps—let alone be used by students to set new learning goals. 

Similarly, local grading policies that require a certain number of grades to be entered into a teachers’ grade book each week are more common than you might think. In response to such policies, teachers often convert tasks that were originally intended to provide feedback to the teacher or students on learning progress (i.e., formative assessments) into graded, classroom summative assessments. And when student work is graded, learning stops. At least for a little while. 

School Structures that Support Educator Collaboration & Extra Instructional Time

The evidence collected from formative assessment processes is not always straightforward. Teachers benefit from being able to make sense of and discuss evidence of student thinking with their colleagues. Collaboration helps teachers use the information/data collected to make better decisions for students. Such interaction among teachers requires school structures that support common planning time, professional learning communities, grade-level meetings, or other structures that facilitate teachers working collaboratively. 

In addition, once a teacher has some ideas about what to do with the formative information collected about student learning, they need time to differentiate instruction, re-teach material, and address specific learning strengths and needs using the formative feedback. 

It makes no sense to collect rich evidence of student learning to adjust instruction and then move on in the curriculum despite whether students are demonstrating understanding. School structures related to multi-tiered systems of supports (MTSS) under which response to intervention (RTI) models reside, provide the structure that teachers can use to work with others to allow students to ‘accelerate’ or ‘make up’ for lost learning with extra instructional time and individualized support. It is nearly impossible to do it alone. 

In other words, teachers need others to help interpret and decide how to use formative information, as well as address student learning strengths and needs beyond those that are easily completed in the course of normal instruction.

Leadership Support & Integration with Teacher Evaluation & Supervision

Leadership in schools matters. Leaders set the tone for what is important and set in motion school or district goals that can afford or constrain a teacher’s time, efforts, and attention. For example, school/district leadership mandates and emphases can take teacher time and attention away from formative assessment processes to other tasks or foci. On the other hand, school/district leaders can fully integrate ‘look fors’ related to formative assessment processes within classroom informal observations (e.g., walk-throughs), conversations with teachers, and/or more formal teacher evaluation and supervision processes (e.g., Danielson’s framework). Imagine how different the school climate and culture would be if school leadership emphasized formative assessment processes in lieu of other more superficial instructional practices such as writing objectives on the board.


This post described five key implementation barriers/facilitators that support the use of formative assessment processes to accelerate learning. My next blog post will address the state, district, and school role in reducing these identified barriers and supporting the facilitators. 

References for Further Reading

Black, P., & Wiliam, D. (1998). Assessment and classroom learning. Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice (Vol. 5).

Formative Assessment for Students and Teachers (FAST) State Collaborative on Assessment and Student Standards (SCASS). (2018). Revising the definition of formative assessment. Washington, DC: Council of Chief State School Officers. Retrieved from

Hattie, J., & Timperley, H. (2007). The power of feedback. Review of Educational Research, 77(1), 81–112.

Toshalis, E., & Nakkula, M. J. (2012). Motivation, engagement, and student voice. The Students At the Center Series. Boston, MA: Jobs for the Future.