Assessment for Instruction

Dr. Douglas Fisher, Contributing Author

There are any numbers of assessment tools that teachers can create (or buy) to help them plan instruction. It’s not the assessment that matters to me, but rather the ways in which wise teachers use the information they gain from the assessment to inform their instruction. I’ve come to think that we should stop saying “formative assessment” because almost every assessment that I’ve used could be either formative or summative, depending on how I use it.

To use assessment tools formatively, I think that there are several important considerations. First, the assessment has to be clearly linked with a learning target or objective. If students (and teachers) don’t know what students are supposed to be learning, it’s hard to measure that learning. Further, students may not be giving it their best shot if they don’t know what it is that they’re supposed to be learning. When assessments come out of the blue, disconnected from learning targets, the data are of questionable use.

Second, students need success criteria. In advance of an assessment, during the learning phase, students should know what quality work looks like. They need examples and non-examples as well as good and great examples. When this happens, expectations are clear and student performance can be measured against an agreed upon standard.

Of course, teachers need a lot of tools to use. There are literally hundreds of ways to check for understanding. These tools can be organized into several categories, including oral language, written language, non-verbal, projects and performances, and tests. The tool that is used has to be consistent with the learning target and success criteria. A mismatch may lead to incorrect identification of students’ needs.

When these systems are in place — students know what they are supposed to be learning, understand what success looks like, and their teachers select appropriate tools — the information gained from the data collection can be used to inform instruction. When there are breaks in this chain, assessment is of little formative use.


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Douglas Fisher, Ph.D., is Professor of Educational Leadership at San Diego State University and a teacher leader at Health Sciences High & Middle College having been an early intervention teacher and elementary school educator. He is the recipient of an International Reading Association Celebrate Literacy Award, an Exemplary Leader award from the Conference on English Leadership of NCTE, as well as a Christa McAuliffe award for excellence in teacher education. He has published numerous articles on reading and literacy, differentiated instruction, and curriculum design as well as books, such as Visible Learning for Literacy, Rigorous Reading, and Text Complexity: Raising Rigor in Reading. He can be reached at dfisher@mail.sdsu.edu.

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