By Wendy Sheets

In order to monitor student progress and success in literacy, effective schools use both formative and summative assessments. Both are meant to develop a feedback loop between student learning and instructional practices. They provide teachers and students with information about strengths and challenges, driving instructional decisions for further learning.

Formative Assessment

Formative assessments are ongoing, taking place during the learning process and providing continuous, immediate feedback regarding teaching and learning. They may include anecdotal records, classroom observations, student self-assessments, entries within the writer’s notebook, oral tasks, portfolio pieces, diagnostic tests, quizzes, essays, performance tasks, conversations, writing samples, or exit slips. Some specific formative assessments are as follows: Reader’s Notebook (Fountas & Pinnell, 2001), Observation Survey (Clay, 2002), Benchmark Assessment System (Fountas & Pinnell, 2007), Running Records (Clay, 2002)), and Developmental Spelling Assessment (Ganske, 2000). Frequent assessment guides teachers to “help children move from where they are to somewhere else” by developing responsive curricula in real-time, during the learning process (Clay, 1998). It improves instructional methods, increases differentiation to meet student needs, and provides valuable feedback for both teachers and students. Formative assessment can result in significant learning gains but only when the assessment results are used to inform the instructional and learning process (Black & William, 1998). They are often referred to as assessments “for learning.”

Summative Assessment

Summative assessments have the capacity to document change over time and inform stakeholders about the effectiveness of literacy efforts. They provide information about student competency at particular points in time, typically evaluating success after a period of instruction. They may include district benchmark assessments, state or national tests, unit or chapter tests, or final exams. Effective schools use summative assessments to inform decisions, including those related to supplemental instruction and professional development. Stakeholders recognize and celebrate successes and set goals to overcome challenges. Summative assessments are often referred to as assessments “of learning.”

The Potential Within Assessments

Both formative and summative assessments are important for impacting decisions regarding students, the classroom and schools. The effectiveness of literacy instruction may be ensured by all stakeholders in schools when they use and communicate about assessments. An additional layer of information to facilitate school effectiveness may be achieved through program evaluation. Student achievement may be analyzed through a wider lens as stakeholders evaluate effectiveness of interventions with different subgroups. Assessments are tools that have powerful potential when educators utilize them effectively.


Black, P., & William, D. (1998). Assessment and classroom learning. Assessment in Education, 5(1), 7–74.

Clay, M. M. (1998). By different paths to common outcomes. York, ME: Stenhouse.

Clay, M.M. (2002). An observation survey of early literacy achievement  (2nd edition).

Auckland, New Zealand: Heinemann.

Fountas, I.C. & Pinnell, G.S. (2001). Guiding readers and writers: Teaching comprehension, genre, and content literacy. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Fountas, I.C. & Pinnell, G.S. (2007). Benchmark Assessment System. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Ganske, K. (2000). Word Journeys: Assessment-Guided Phonics, Spelling, and Vocabulary Instruction. NY, New York: The Guilford Press.


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