Formative Assessment: An Instructional Practice to Empower Teachers and Students

TJ Bliss
Director of Assessment and Accountability

Nancy Thomas Price
Formative/Interim Assessment Coordinator

Teachers and students across the state are adjusting to the new Idaho Core Standards. For many teachers, this adjustment means shifts in instructional practice. One important part of this shift relates to how teachers use formative assessment in their classrooms.

Last year, the State Department of Education provided professional development opportunities for more than 500 Idaho teachers and administrators to improve their understanding and practice of formative assessment. This means that more and more of our educators better understand that formative assessment is not just a more frequent or more fine-grained test. Instead, they understand that formative assessment is a type of instructional practice-a practice that should be a vital part of implementing the Idaho Core Standards in mathematics and English language arts. These teachers also understand that formative assessment, together with appropriate interim and summative assessment activities, is a critical component of a balanced assessment system that can improve student learning.

The Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, of which Idaho is a governing state, defines formative assessment as "a deliberate process used by teachers and students during instruction that provides actionable feedback that is used to adjust ongoing teaching and learning strategies to improve students' attainment of curricular learning targets/goals."

There are several important points in this definition that bear repeating.

First, formative assessment is a deliberate process. Effective formative assessment requires careful preparation and planning.

Second, formative assessment is not just a teacher practice. The most effective formative assessment involves students using self-assessment and peer-assessment strategies.

Third, the primary purpose of formative assessment is to elicit feedback that teachers use to adjust teaching and that students use to adjust learning. Feedback from formative assessment activities should not be used to assign grades or impact student standing in class.

Fourth, effective formative assessment practice will improve student achievement. Years of research in various contexts has shown that formative assessment practice, when implemented effectively, can have powerful effects on student learning.

On these points, Margaret Heritage, a leading expert on formative assessment practice, argues that "the important thing about formative assessment is that it is not a test, but rather an approach to teaching and learning that uses feedback as its centerpiece in a supportive classroom context. Formative assessment is a practice that empowers teachers and students to give their best to enable learning."

We hope that all Idaho educators, especially those implementing the new Idaho Core Standards, will include formative assessment practice in their professional development plans for this year. To assist educators in this effort, the State Department of Education has provided several web-based resources that every Idaho educator can access today. These resources include the "Power of Assessment Webinar Series" and the "Implications for Instruction Webinar Series," which are available online at

Next year, the Smarter Balanced Digital Library will be readily available. The Digital Library is currently being developed with the help of more than 2,000 educators from across the 26 Smarter Balanced states, including nearly 80 K-12 teachers in Idaho. The library will contain a wide array of professional development and instructional resources related to formative assessment practice and will be made available to all Idaho schools early next fall.

For more information about upcoming professional development opportunities in formative assessment practice, educators should contact Nancy Thomas Price, the state’s Formative/Interim Assessment Coordinator, at