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Can Formative Assessment Help Support Student Learning in a Post-pandemic World?

Caroline Wylie
Principal Research Scientist at ETS

Laura Hullinger
Senior Director in New Product Development at ETS

April 22, 2022

This school year continues to demand that students, teachers and families work through uncertainties and disruptions to learning. While there is no magical solution, decades of research have demonstrated the power of formative assessment to meet and support students where they are in their learning. Now, more than ever, this research addresses the challenge of “meeting students” as the landscape of “where students are” continues to broaden.

The research literature provides compelling evidence that the ongoing use of formative assessment practices by both teachers and students has a positive impact on student learningi. This article describes two specific formative assessment strategies — pre-assessment strategies and strategies that enhance student agency — and illustrates how they complement one another.

Using Pre-assessment Strategies

By using pre-assessment strategies, teachers can find out what students already know about a topic, potentially discovering some incomplete or partial understandings, and helping students to make connections to prior learning. This information can aid teachers in adjusting lesson plans to meet student needs.

To illustrate one approach, we offer an example from the experience of ETS’s Laura Hullinger, a former Grade 4 teacher. As Laura planned a unit on ecosystems, she realized the fortunate circumstance that her school was located within an easy walk of a wooded area and stream. Laura began the unit by taking her students to that area. As the students walked, Laura asked what they noticed and knew about the wildlife and habitat. Her students shared their different observations and made connections to previous experiences and science units. Laura gained insights into what the students recalled from earlier learning, both from school and out-of-school experiences, by listening to their conversations and later reading their journal entries. With this information, she was able to make modifications to her lesson plans to leverage what students had already learned and to guide the next steps in the unit.

While not every school is so conveniently located, and not every new unit lends itself to an experience outside the classroom, the principle of gathering information about what students already know at the start of a new unit holds true across learning environments. Providing opportunities for students to make connections to learning outside of school from their homes, family and broader community is vital across subject matter.

Pre-assessment strategies provide critical opportunities for students to discuss and write about their existing ideas and understandings. For example, by working in groups, students can pool knowledge which can be less intimidating, and potentially be more productive, than a formal, 20-item quiz. Students can respond in groups to a prompt or a question, drawing or writing in different colors to help a teacher note each individual student’s contribution. In other cases, getting a broad sense of where the class is collectively may be sufficient to inform the initial starting point for a new unit. Creating ways to display the pooled understanding of the class (e.g., word clouds, concept maps, questions to be answered, et al.) can set the stage for future learning, making way for visual displays to be updated to track learning as the unit proceeds and the class’s collective understanding of the content grows.

Developing Student Agency

The second strategy focuses on helping students develop ownership of and engagement in their own learning, also described as student agency. The OCEDii defines student agency as “a student’s capacity to set a goal, reflect and act responsibly to affect change.” Part of being able to demonstrate agency is an underlying belief that learning is malleable and that students understand that they can control their own learning.  

An example of developing student agency comes from Laura’s ELA teaching aimed at helping her students improve as readers and writers. Together they reviewed the CCSS Capacities of a Literate Individual1, to identify specific capacities to apply to their reading and create posters of these capacities using their own words. Capacities included recognizing audience and purpose, asking questions they wanted to answer, and learning about the perspectives of others. As students read, referencing their posters, they annotated their reading at points where they recognized themselves practicing the capacities. One important outcome of this process is that students realized that being an effective reader and writer is not just something that they either already are or are not, but rather the capacities could be practiced and their skills could be improved over time. 

There are many ways to help students develop greater agency. Tracking learning progress over the course of a unit from the pre-assessment to the end can help students recognize changes in their understanding. Engaging students in structured self-assessment opportunities can help them learn to reflect on their progress and identify the next steps in learning. Giving students choices regarding which problems to tackle, approaches to use to solve problems, or ways to demonstrate their understanding are important steps along the way to support students setting their own learning goals.

How do these two strategies relate? The use of pre-assessment strategies to adjust lesson plans to meet specific student needs contributes to a classroom climate where a teacher demonstrates the belief that every student can learn and improve. Otherwise, why bother adjusting lesson plans? For some students, recognizing that a teacher believes in their ability to learn is an important observation that can help them develop greater belief in their own ability to learn and increase their sense of agency.

In a year where teachers are already working at full — or beyond — capacity, asking teachers to take on new things is challenging. Collaborating with other teachers helps reduce the likelihood that teachers lose time independently (re)inventing the wheel. Vertical conversations between grade levels can be helpful to identify units from last year that were most impacted by the disruptions in learning and may suggest dependent units where both students and teachers would benefit from pre-assessment. Horizontal conversations within grade-level teams can support teachers planning to co-develop learning goals for units and lessons, identify potential connections to students’ families and communities, and to anticipate potential partial understandings or misconceptions that need to be addressed. Teachers co-developing ideas for engaging pre-assessments and discussing what was learned to adjust unit plans accordingly can be very productive for an entire cohort and school community. Teacher collaboration serves as a model for students in terms of what it means to be a lifelong learner and the power in working collectively.

Caroline Wylie is a principal research scientist and Laura Hullinger is a senior director in New Product Development at ETS. Caroline and Laura are part of a larger innovation team that has been collaborating on K–12 formative assessment products, including PlanWise™ and the Assessment Literacy Modules.

1 Black, P. P. J., Harrison, C., Lee, C., Marshall, B., & Wiliam, D. (2007). Assessment for learning. New York, NY: Open University Press.

Randel, B., Beesley, A. D., Anthorp, H., Clark, T. F., Wang, X., & Cicchinelli, L. F. et al. (2011). Classroom assessment for student learning: Impact on elementary school mathematics in the central region (NCEE 23011-4005). Washington, DC: National Center for Educational Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education, U.S. Department of Education.

Wiliam, D., Lee, C., Harrison, C., & Black, P. (2004). Teachers developing assessment for learning: Impact on student achievement. Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice, 11, 49–65.

2 Taguma, M., & Barrera, M. (2019). OECD future of education and skills 2030: Curriculum analysis. Available at: