Posts Tagged ‘Formative Assessment’

Formative Assessment in Science: Three Big Ideas

Friday, November 21st, 2014

Author: Cynthia Holcomb, Education Specialist, Elementary Science

It’s a hot topic: Formative Assessment. Every resource will define it for you in basically the same way: formative assessment is for learning while summative assessment is of learning. But in plain language, formative assessment is an activity in which students share their developing ideas while the learning is still taking place. It’s a very active approach to learning.

So, how do we use formative assessment in science instruction? By nature, science is an active process that provides opportunities for students to discuss what they are learning as they practice what they are learning. Science instruction should provide experiences and types of thinking used by all scientists.

Consider these three Big Ideas about formative assessment in the science classroom.

 1.  A critical part of science teaching is having a dialogue, not a monologue, with students to clarify their existing ideas and to help them construct the scientifically accepted ideas (Scott, 1999). An activity to promote rich discussion is called the S.O.S Statement. The teacher presents a statement (S), asks each student to state an opinion (O) about the topic, and then support (S) his or her opinion with evidence. This activity can be used before or during a lesson to assess student attitudes, beliefs, and knowledge about a topic. It can be used at points throughout a unit or lesson to assess what students are beginning to understand about the topic. And it can be used at the end of a unit to see if ideas have been influenced or changed as a result of new learning.

2.  No matter how well-planned a lesson, the need to determine student understandings through unplanned formative assessments may arise. Clock Partners is a method of creating sets of partners for spot checks of content knowledge. In this activity, each student is given a copy of a Clock Partners sheet (a picture of an analog clock face) at the beginning of a grading period, unit of study, or other desired length of time. Each student meets with classmates to write their names by a corresponding hour of the clock so that the resulting partners have each other’s names on matching hours. To pair students for discussions, announce a time slot on the clock; partners meet to discuss, clarify, or summarize content ideas. Have partners report out their key ideas as a means of assessing their understandings of the topic and to determine if re-teaching is necessary. For more information on Clock Partners, see  (This site includes a downloadable clock template.)

3.  For a quick but effective formative assessment activity, ask students to create an analogy about content. When students create metaphors and analogies, it can express a level of understanding that traditional questions and quizzes don’t address (Wormeli, 2009). A student-created analogy provides a map of how the learner links ideas together; it shows insight regarding connections from prior learning as well as highlighting misconceptions.  Periodically, present students with an analogy prompt: A ________ is like _________ because ______________. (Example: A cell’s plasma membrane is like a factory’s shipping and receiving department because it regulates everything that enters and leaves the cell.) This high level of application requires students to think deeply about content as well as to help guide instruction.

As an added benefit, while the formative assessment process provides information needed to adjust teaching and learning while they are still happening, the process also provides practice for the student and a self-check for understanding during the learning process.



Scott, P. (1999). An analysis of science classroom talk in terms of the authoritative and dialogic nature of the discourse. Paper presented to the 1999 NARST Annual Meeting. Boston, MA.

Wormeli, R. (2009). Metaphors & Analogies: Power Tools for Teaching Any Subject. Stenhouse.

Rubrics: Out of the clinic and in to the classroom

Friday, November 2nd, 2012

Jennifer Jordan-Kaszuba, Secondary Science Specialist

As a science educator, I find it interesting when a process used in science transitions to the mainstream.  So when I discovered that rubrics were originally used to classify diseases and have only been part of the educational lexicon since the 1970s, I had to check this out.  I found some diseases are not diagnosed based on a rubric, but are straightforward tests as we might expect.  You either have the bacteria that causes strep throat or you don’t.  This is analogous to a multiple-choice exam: you either get the correct answer or you don’t.  But some diseases and disorders, such as rheumatoid arthritis, are diagnosed based on a set of criteria and a point system. (Just so you know, if more than 10 joints are involved and at least one of those is a small joint, you get more points, which in this case is not a good thing and means you are moving toward a diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis.)  In order for doctors to make an objective diagnosis and to ensure that everyone agrees on a diagnosis, they use rubrics.  Rubrics are used in the classroom for similar reasons.


How can rubrics be used?

Rubrics are used in the classroom to evaluate performance assessments so that students are judged as objectively as possible.  Rubrics should also be used for student goal setting and self-assessment (Kingore, 2007).  Students should be provided a copy of the rubric at the same time an assignment is given so they can set a goal for the grade they want to achieve. Students can self-assess their progress during the time given for creation, and before submission of their finished product, to compare their performance to their own goal.


What makes a rubric different from a checklist?

Rubrics are not just checklists listing requirements for assignments.  Instead, rubrics provide descriptors of performance at various levels for a learning task.  Rubrics include information regarding the expected quality of the work in addition to the quantity.  Rubrics provide students and teachers alike with a scoring guide distinguishing exceptional work from satisfactory work, as well as satisfactory work from unsatisfactory work.  Providing students with clear expectations allows them to assume responsibility for their own learning and performance.


How do I create a rubric?

Ideally a rubric already exists that you can modify to fit your need. (Try searching the Internet for the topic you will be teaching and include the word rubric. There were 731,000 + results for the search “Element Project Rubric.”) Although you don’t always need to start from scratch, let’s assume you are starting anew.  There are multiple types of rubrics, including generic and task specific.  A generic rubric is one which can be applied across a range of different tasks: for example, a rubric that judges an oral presentation regardless of the content of the presentation.  Task-specific rubrics are just that, specific to the project or task the students are being asked to complete.  You can combine a generic rubric with a task-specific one as needed.  For example, if students were being asked to complete an element project and present to the class about their element, we could use a generic rubric for the oral performance portion and a task-specific rubric to ensure they include all of the information about their element that is required.

But how do we know what is required?  This is what we must first determine.  Start by listing all the aspects of the assigned task that will be assessed.  Look at the TEKS to determine the content and/or skills that need to be included.  Next, take your list and determine which of these are non-negotiable.  For example, an element project might include basic properties of the element, history of the discovery of the element, current uses of the element, a model, a poster and a sample of the element.  However, the student who researches uranium will not be likely to provide a sample, so that component may have to be eliminated from the list.  Basic properties, the history of the element, and current uses of the element may be non-negotiables, while the delivery method of poster versus a PowerPoint could be negotiable, with students deciding on their delivery method.  Once we have a list of the components we want to include as non-negotiables, we must prioritize and select the 3-5 elements that define a quality performance.

Next we must decide how many performance levels to use and how to define them.  According to the Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition (CARLA) at the University of Minnesota, an even number of performance levels is preferable so that the middle level does not become a catch all.  Having an even number of levels forces you to make a decision about quality and place it above or below average.  Let’s use four levels and call them Exemplary, Excellent, Acceptable and Unacceptable.  For ease in tracking points numerically, we will number them 4, 3, 2, and 1.  If desired, you can also have a “not attempted” category worth 0 points.  Next, we need to look at each of our components individually and define the performance at each level.  Start with the highest level (Exemplary) and determine what is required.  For example, we might expect a student to include basic properties including atomic weight, atomic number, phase at standard temperature and pressure and number of valence electrons.  Our excellent category might state that three out of the four are included; acceptable might be two out of four; and unacceptable might be one out of four.  This example is straightforward but demonstrates that the difference between a 4 and a 3 should be the same as a difference between a 2 and a 1.

Once you have written all of your statements, revisit them and make sure all of the desired components are addressed in each level.  This is the ideal time to discuss your performance task and rubric with a co-worker, even if they are not in the same subject area, to quality check for clarity.  Another way to evaluate your rubric is to carry out the task yourself and see where you would rank on each criterion; this will help you reevaluate and strengthen your criteria as necessary.  Once you have created and used a rubric with your students, reflect back and make changes to strengthen the rubric for the following task or year.

Some questions to ask yourself as you create rubrics include:

  • Does my rubric reflect performance at different levels of achievement?
  • Are the criteria for each level specific enough that students know what is expected of them?  Are descriptors worded so they are examples of what to do to achieve a given level?
  • Will I, as the teacher, be able to objectively grade this assignment?
  • Should one criterion be weighted more given the TEKS being addressed?
  • Do I need to differentiate the rubric for different levels of learners?
  • Does my rubric fit on one page to avoid intimidating students?




Evaluation Process: Rubrics, Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition, (accessed October 8, 2012).


The 2010 ACR-AULAR classification criteria for rheumatoid arthritis, American College of Rheumatology,, (accessed October 8, 2012).

Using Released Test Items to Design Justified Lists and Card Sorts for Science

Wednesday, October 12th, 2011

Assessment seems to be all anyone is talking about in education these days.  Well, okay, a few people might have mentioned school financing, but STAAR, EOC, Reference Documents (the documents previously known as formula charts), and the just-released STAAR sample items… oh you hadn’t heard about those?  Yes, they were released by TEA on September 30, 2011, and can be found online.  And, since I know teachers in tested grades are going to want to look at those, go ahead.  Visit and look them over, then come back and finish this article in which I am going to give suggestions on utilizing standardized questions to design formative assessment experiences which can be integrated into student notebooks.

Standardized assessments serve a purpose in that they help to judge the effectiveness of different curricula and approaches to instruction, districts, and even teachers; but the results often inform us as to which TEKS a group of students or even an individual student have not mastered without providing insight as to what they do not understand or why.  In order to understand students’ thought processes, assessments must be written that allow for open-ended response, problem solving steps to be shown, and for students to be forced to confront common misconceptions side-by-side with the scientifically- based explanation of a phenomena and decide which explanation they hold to be true.  When these types of assessments are conducted throughout the learning process for the benefit of both teacher and student, then we call them formative assessments.  Renowned National Science Teacher Association (NSTA) author Page Keeley in her book Science Formative Assessment: 75 Practical Strategies for Linking Assessment, Instruction, and Learning, defines formative assessment as “assessment for learning” (Keeley, 2008).  Summative exams such as STAAR are considered to be assessments of learning in that they do not provide learning opportunities to students.  Both types of assessments may provide information that informs curriculum and instruction, but it is how the assessments impact a student that is the key.  In her book Keeley provides 75 Formative Assessment Classroom Techniques (FACTs).   Two types I have chosen to focus on are justified lists and card sorts.

Justified List

One type of formative assessment is the justified list, in which students are presented with a question such as, “Which of the following are producers?” and then a list that might include, “oak tree, mushroom, grass, algae, duckweed, corn, and dog.”  Students are tasked with checking off those things on the list that are considered producers and then asked to, “Write the rule by which you decided if something is a producer or not.”  We could also ask students to write three characteristics they use to determine if something is a producer.  The important task here is that students are examining their thinking about what are examples and non-examples and then explaining and justifying the characteristics they used.  The example I described using producers would be a great formative assessment to go along with TEKS 5.9(B) which is the TEKS assessed in question number 12 of the 2011 5th grade released questions.  Students should recognize and explain that they did not choose a mushroom because it breaks down nutrients from decaying organisms and thus cannot serve as the basis of a food chain. A chemistry example (see question number 1 of the 2011 Chemistry released questions) might be, “Which of the following are considered extensive properties?”

Justified lists can be used as pre-assessments (for example, a biology teacher might ask about producers before beginning a lesson on food webs) or to assess learning after the explanation phase of instruction (as would be the case when a 5th grade teacher uses the producer list).  They can be conducted in tandem with a think, pair, share to allow students to discuss and refine their ideas or they can be integrated into a unit assessment in which case the list should include some new examples the students might not have previously been confronted with.

Integrating justified lists into science notebooks is easy.  The question, justified list and prompt can be made to fit on half a sheet of paper which students can glue or tape into their notebook at the top so the paper can be lifted up and the rule which the student used and their justification can then be written directly on the notebook paper.

In addition to Science Formative Assessment, Keeley has written a series of books entitled Uncovering Student Ideas is Science.  All are available through NSTA at  An example chapter from one of Keeley’s probe books that includes a justified list can be found online at  Scroll down just a bit under details and click on the link next to Read Inside.

Card Sort

Another type of formative assessment is a card sort. Card sorts are designed in such a way that students sort a set of cards with either terms or pictures on them into two or more categories.  For example, during an 8th grade lesson utilizing the periodic table students might sort terms such as metallic appearance, non-metal, semiconductors, conductors, non-conductors, etc. onto an outline of the periodic table that has been divided into non-metals, metals, and metalloids such as that seen in the 8th grade 2011 Released Question number 3.  The cards that students sort could also include the symbols or names of some elements they are familiar with and pictures of some of the more common elements.

To really make students think, make the number of cards unequal in each category.  For example have 7 cards belong under non-metals, while only 6 belong under metals.  Another way of making the activity more rigorous is to include cards that will not be used.  When I taught Biology I included two cards that said “Does Not Contain DNA” and four cards that said “Does Contain DNA” for my sort of characteristics and example organisms for the six kingdoms. When students said they seemed to be missing “Does Contain DNA” cards and that they had cards that didn’t belong anywhere (such as the “HIV” card) they were demonstrating understanding and mastery on a higher level than if they had done a one-to-one matching activity.

Card sorts can be integrated into notebooks through questions or stems about why certain cards were put into categories, such as having students complete the statement, “I placed ________________ in the kingdom _____________ because…”  or  “We had the hardest time deciding where ____________ goes because…” You can also make the sort one that students cut apart themselves and then glue into a graphic organizer in their notebook so students can review their written justifications while observing the results of their sort.  Alternatively, you can use pockets where students can replicate the sort and practice on their own.  This is especially useful for more difficult concepts or content that is being introduced for the first time.

Tips for using card sorts:

  • Provide a key so students can check their sorting even if they are away from the classroom
  • Students can work in pairs or small groups
  • Ensure students discuss and reflect on why cards were sorted in certain ways
  • Use sentence stems to ensure English Language Learners participate in these discussions
  • Encourage students to distribute the cards between all members of the group and to take turns placing the cards

Example science card sorts produced by ESC Region XIII are available online at



Notice how, regardless of which formative assessment strategy or technique is chosen, it is the way in which the strategy is utilized and the guiding and probing questions asked by the teacher that provide the depth and rigor required by STAAR.  Formative assessments must be developed and designed in such a way that yes, informs instruction, but the main purpose should be for students to recognize and confront their own misunderstandings and begin to correct them.  A quiz, given to students working silently and independently that is then graded by the teacher with the only feedback to the student being a grade, is not considered formative.


Keeley, Page. (2008). Science Formative Assessment: 75 practical strategies for linking assessment, instruction, and learning.  Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

STAAR 2011 Released Test Questions.  Accessed online at, October 1, 2011.

ELAR – Formative Assessment

Wednesday, October 12th, 2011

Formative assessments are an integral part of the instruction process, providing feedback to both the teacher and student with the goal of improving learning.   Without formative assessments, teachers wouldn’t be able to make timely adjustments to instruction to ensure student mastery.  These adjustments can be anything from a re-teach for those who did not master the concept to an enrichment activity allowing students to apply their concept/skill in a new way.


reteach to enrich scale


Exit tickets (Fisher and Frey, 2004 ) and SOS Summaries (Dodge, 2009) are two  quick, easy, prep-free ways to assess FOR learning.



Exit Tickets are slips of paper or index cards in which students respond to a prompt or question pertaining to the day’s lesson.  The question or prompt shouldn’t take more than 3-4 minutes to complete.   Often they are referred to as “tickets out the door” because students cannot leave the classroom until they have handed the teacher their response.  After all the responses are collected, the teacher reviews them and uses the information on them to determine what adjustments need to be made to instruction.  The teacher determine which students (if any) need a re-teach, which students need additional practice through a reinforcing or elaborating  activity, and which students showed mastery of the lesson and can move onto an enrichment activity.  Fisher, D., and Frey, N. (2004) point out that there are three categories of Exit Ticket prompts.

  1. prompts that document learning
  2. prompts that emphasize the process of learning
  3. prompts to evaluate the effectiveness of instruction



Prompts that document learning Prompts that emphasize the process of learning Prompts to evaluate the effectiveness of instruction
The most important thing I learned today was…


Summarize today’s lesson in 25 carefully chosen words.


Write three things you would say to explain this to a younger child (or adult).


Choose one word that summarizes today’s lesson.  Explain why you chose that word.


I need help with…


What would you like to review during the next session?


How did you feel about__?


What did you do to participate today?


What is something you are doing to help yourself learn?

Rate your understanding of today’s topic from 1-10 and explain WHY you rated yourself that.


The best part of class today was…


What did you not like?


Secondary example of an Exit Ticket:

secondary ticket example



The S-O-S Summary (Dodge, 2009) is a formative assessment that ELAR teachers can use before, during or after instruction.

Before: to assess student attitudes, beliefs, and knowledge about a topic.

During: to assess what students are coming to understand about the topic.

After: to assess if attitudes and beliefs have been influenced or changed as a result of new learning and if they can better support their opinion.



S – Statement

Student reads the statement provided by the teacher.


O – Opinion

Student decides if he/she agrees or disagrees with the statement.


S – Support

Student supports their opinion with evidence, facts and examples.


Statements you might pose in an ELAR classroom:


There was a better solution to ______________.

____ is of value.

The character was justified when __________.

The author implies ______.

This passage suggests ___________

This character feels ______.

The story would be different (same) if the setting were changed to __________.

The effect of ___________ was most significant to __________.

______ is similar to ____________.

________ reminds me of ____.


The author has a bias.

The author believes ____________.

The lesson the character (or the author) is teaching is _____.

The passage (or the author) implies/suggests_______.

The tone of the passage is _________.

The writer’s overall feeling toward ______ is______.

_____fulfilled his/her dreams.

_____ is a good (or poor) choice for a title.

_____ is more successful.



Elementary examples of S-O-S Summary:








Fisher, D., and Frey, N. (2004).  Improving Adolescent Literacy: Strategies at Work.  New Jersey: Pearson Prentice Hall.

Dodge, Judith. (2009). 25 Quick Formative Assessments for a Differentiated Classroom: Easy, Low-Prep Assessments That Help You Pinpoint Students’ Needs and Reach All Learners. Scholastic Inc.


Assessment for Learning: Technology Supported Formative Assessment

Wednesday, October 12th, 2011

Every day in classrooms across Texas, technology tools are infused with quality instruction to boost engagement, simplify learning task management, differentiate for diverse learning needs and increase learning through exposure to content with multiple modalities.  Educators have who embrace the transformative power of learning with technology can also take advantage of the opportunities available for assessment for learning, a.k.a – Formative Assessment.

Technology-rich, authentic assessments and automated quick-checks for understanding can provide feedback to inform teachers on how to design instruction and students on how to continuously improve. In the publication “Meaningful Measurement”, author Lyndsay M. Pinkus points out:

Many formative assessment strategies address the teacher’s information needs, helping to answer questions critical to good instruction:

• Who is and who is not understanding the lesson?

• What are this student’s strengths and needs?

• What misconceptions do I need to address?

• What feedback should I give students?

• What adjustments should I make to instruction?

• How should I group students?

• What differentiation do I need to prepare? (Pinkus, 2009)

I encourage you to download and read the full publication “Meaningful Measurement”, specifically chapter 3 concerning formative assessments.


When you get a chance, passively observe K-12 students as they interact with the technology around them.  Watch as they courageously explore the buttons and features they encounter.  They risk getting stuck or lost. They risk creating a “mess” of the tool.  They risk having to ask for help, or look up answers.  Observe as they test a solution, evaluate its effectiveness and determine the next action based on the information they gather.  Or, more simply stated, click a button and see what happens.  You can literally watch learning happen, in real time.  Each action is a moment of self-teaching, learning, and formative assessment for the student.  A popular label for this type of learning is “Problem Based Learning” or in some more structured cases “Project Based Learning”.  Both are a form of “Performance Assessment” and work as your guidance system as you lead each learner down the path to understanding and demonstration.   Check out “Sources of Performance Assessment Tasks, Rubrics, and Samples of Student Work” for excellent examples, rubrics, tasks and more for each content area and general topics.


Here are a few notable technology tools that are simple to integrate and get powerful results when it comes to student quickly taking the “pulse” of learning to formatively assess student progress.

  • is “a smart student response system that empowers teachers to engage their classrooms through a series of educational exercises and games via smartphones, laptops, and tablets.” In short, it allows teachers to create a variety of short assessments, such as quizzes and exit tickets, that can be taken from any web enabled device.  The interface is extremely kid-friendly, even for young students.  Best of all, it does not require student accounts, but still provides somewhat detailed student performance data by name via secure e-mailed excel file directly to the teacher.  Visit for a preview.  The site says it is in beta as of this writing, but you can go to (teacher tool) and (student interface) and grab an account and start assessing right away.  Easy to learn… easy to use.


Use to quickly and easily set up an online place for students to post comments, questions, and answer your prompts.  Again, this does site does not require students to have accounts, and the posts expire after a time you decide, allowing for “easy cleanup” while still giving access to absent students.  You simply set up the room (one click) and share the URL.  Try this site for your next “exit ticket”.

  • Epsilen – Project Share Texas

You’ve heard the buzz, and perhaps had some professional work experience in Project Share as a Texas educator, but in case you are unaware, the project is now open for student enrollment and you are encouraged to use the learning management system with your students.  (Note: talk to your district and your Education Service Center about student accounts).  With the Epsilen platform (Project Share’s engine) you and your students can interact in a robust virtual learning environment that allows you to share files, use forums for discussion, real time chats for, full featured test/quiz making suite (and associated grade tools), wikis for collaborative writing, blogs for student publishing, electronic portfolios with interactive assessment rubrics and much more.  Having all of these tools in one, safe, uniform and free platform opens up a treasure trove of formative assessment opportunities.  For more information, feel free to check out our blog at or the State’s official page at  Also, feel free to contact Region XIII’s Project Share team at for more information and to inquire about training.

L. M. Pinkus, ed., Meaningful Measurement: The Role of Assessments in Improving High School Education in the Twenty-First Century (Washington, DC: Alliance for Excellent Education, 2009).