How to Use Assessments to Drive Instruction

One of the most valuable tools in teaching is assessment. I am constantly assessing my students in my classroom using formative assessments. Sometimes this is just as simple as observing nonverbal cues (such as nodding or looks of confusion) or as elaborate as giving a formal assessment. Both have great value that make teaching much more effective by providing data that allows you to adjust instructional strategies to meet the needs of more learners.

I use a mixed skill math assessment at the beginning of the school year to get a baseline of where my students’ skills are currently.

What are some common formative assessments?

Essays, projects, entrance or exit tickets, quizzes, or tests can also be used as formative assessments. The first step to driving instruction with a formal assessment is choosing what skill or skills you want to assess. With reading, that might be a one-minute fluency read, tracking sight word recall, or answering comprehension questions over a reading passage. I like to use journal writing for informally assessing writing skills. For math, it might be solving equations on the board or answering basic facts with flashcards. You can choose an assessment for a single skill or choose an assessment that assesses multiple skills. Maybe you have a Google form that has just a few quick questions for students to answer. All of these provide invaluable data to help you make more informed decisions when planning your teaching.

How do you conduct a formative assessment?

Once you have your skill or skills picked, it’s time to choose the actual assessment. How do you want to assess the skill? There are traditional paper-and-pencil tests which are nice when wanting to see students’ work when solving math problems or when creating a portfolio of skills. I also utilize ready-to-assign digital assessments such as from You can use nearly anything to gather data on students’ skills. I have a blank grid with names always ready to go that lets me record data on the fly. I’ve used that when I give students math problems on dry erase boards, practice spelling or phonics skills, show times on analog clocks, or determining if a sentence is a fact or opinion.

A word of caution — one of the important things to remember when choosing an assessment is to make sure there are no student limitations that will impact your data. For example, if I am giving a math or science assessment, I want to make sure students’ reading skills will not be a barrier. I either need to read the questions aloud or choose a digital format that allows me to provide that accommodation for any student who wants it. Remember, this assessment is to drive your instruction. If you have data that has been negatively impacted by outside factors, you will have wasted your (and your students) time.

What is the purpose of formative assessment?

The main purpose of a formative assessment is to monitor student learning in a way that gives you usable feedback. No matter what you are assessing or how you decide to deliver that assessment, having a method of tracking student data is critical. This can help you identify students who need remediation or who are ready for more advanced concepts. The data can also let you know if changes need to be made to your lessons or if you have students who may benefit from more support in your class. 

Gathering data is an important part of assessment! I use these data tracking forms when I give my math assessments.

I have data…now what?

This is the best part! Using assessment data tells you what you need to do next. I prefer to utilize small group instruction in my classroom whenever possible, so I use the data I gather to form groups based on specific skill needs. Depending on the skill and the current level of proficiency, I can provide intense remediation or even skill extension in a small group setting.  I can also choose to push out digital practice activities that provide immediate feedback to students. My favorite digital platform for formative assessment and skill practice is the Boom Learning website. There is a free version, but I LOVE creating decks and if you pay for a subscription, it also tracks student data! 

Another thing I like to use for specific skill practice are task cards. I can print them and tape them around the room and let students move around answering questions. There is also the option of just printing them as a packet (though this is my least favorite way to use task cards). An additional way to get students moving is to separate the cards among several tables and let students work together on a set before telling the class to switch to the next table. Task cards typically come with an answer sheet for students to record their answers or work on. It only takes a few minutes to go over the answers as a group. That is my preferred method of providing feedback. I can always collect the answer recording sheets and grade them and then return them to students, but I find the quicker I can provide feedback the better the impact to students learning. 

It’s important to remember that you will often need to formatively assess students multiple times over the same skill. This is not always a one-and-done assessment. How are you going to determine if the remediation or reteaching you provided was successful? I like to pair the assessment and data process with goal setting…especially if it is a larger skill or a goal that a student with special needs is working on. My students love tracking their reading fluency scores. We discuss what skills need to be improved on and I always make some notes after each fluency reading to tell me what skills could be boosted, like focusing on word endings, prefixes, or sight words.

I always provide ongoing feedback to my students about their skills. When they show improvement we get to celebrate their victory. I rarely give candy in my class, but a fluency high score earns a piece of candy every single time! What are some of your favorite formative assessments? How do you share feedback with your students? Please share your tips and ideas below!