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Traditionally, assessment meant tests and exams at the end of a unit. Students were given one opportunity to demonstrate learning and received a grade or a mark based upon their ability to complete the assessment successfully. Ideally, assessment should inform your instruction. It should give you and your students a clear understanding about what they understand and what gaps in their knowledge still exist. Armed with this information, you and your students are able to make informed decisions about next steps for learning.

Traditional assessment is called summative assessment or assessment of learning. Summative assessment usually occurs as a test or exam at the end of a unit or course of study, or takes the form of standardized tests, such as the EQAO assessments for grades 3, 6, 9 and 10. Summative assessments are useful in evaluating programs, curriculum, or student placement, but do not provide timely information about student achievement at the classroom level that can used to adjust instruction. Formative assessment is required to meet this need.

Formative assessment is assessment for learning. It must be part of the instructional process. Formative assessment is assessment that occurs regularly throughout a unit or a course of study. It can be formal (such as a quiz) or informal (such as observation), and it provides information about students' understanding of the material. When practiced regularly, it provides timely information that drives instruction. If there are gaps in some students' understanding, this can be addressed and corrected immediately. Formative assessment should be thought of as a form of coaching. Consider the basketball coach teaching a new skill to a group of students. An effective coach provides:

This consistent assessment, followed by clearly defined next steps, ensures that the student understands the gains made and is able to concentrate on the next step. This results in improved student achievement. This same process can be found in music and art classrooms. This is formative assessment. This process is equally successful in other subject areas and is an important aspect of effective teaching.

Regular assessment of students that is used to drive instruction can be accomplished in a number of ways:

These are just a few examples of formative assessment strategies that will provide you with information that will inform your instruction. Please check in the Helpful Resources section for more sources of information about assessment.

Another important aspect of formative assessment that must be in place to ensure effectiveness is student involvement in the assessment process. Students must have a clear understanding of expectations and must have contributed to the development of the goals and assessment criteria for the assignment. When they have been involved in the development of assessment criteria, they are better able to take some responsibility for their own understanding through self-assessment and reflection. Students can also provide important information and feedback as peer assessors.

In any discussion about assessment, diagnostic assessment must not be forgotten. Diagnostic assessment occurs at the beginning of the teaching and learning cycle. It provides important information about prior learning, ability level and needs that the students bring to this new learning opportunity. This information is used to:

Diagnostic assessment information can be gained through formal or informal means. Formal diagnostic assessment usually involves tests, quizzes, pre-tests or formal assessment tools. Informal assessment can be gained through examination of on-going work (homework assignments, classroom practice, journal entries, etc.), effective questioning techniques to determine depth of understanding of a concept or assignments designed to target certain skills. The information gained in diagnostic assessment should be used to design instruction that addresses the ability levels of your students.

Effective teachers recognize the importance of assessment as a diagnostic tool, an instrument to drive instruction and an opportunity to gage student achievement. The needs of all students cannot be met without using assessment on a regular basis to inform your instruction.

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