Formative assessment: Guidance for early childhood policymakers


Formative assessment* is a process that teachers employ to collect and use assessment information to tailor instruction to the individual needs of children.1 Collecting information from multiple sources and analyzing it in light of children’s individual learning needs can support teaching whereby all children continue to learn and thrive.
Ideally, early childhood educators embed formative assessment in instruction by working directly with children to gather information about what children know and can do, how they process information and solve problems, and how they interact with other children and adults. Formative assessment may include informal, but systematic, vetted and published assessment instruments, home-grown assessment instruments, and data collection procedures employed by teachers in classrooms.

Formative assessment is one component of a comprehensive assessment system. A comprehensive assessment system is defined as, “a coordinated and comprehensive system of multiple assessments– each of which is valid and reliable for its specified purpose and for the population with which it will be used–that organizes information about the process and context of young children’s learning and development in order to help early childhood educators make informed instructional and programmatic decisions. A comprehensive assessment system includes, at a minimum, screening measures, formative assessments, measures of environmental quality, and measures of the quality of adult-child interactions.”2

A comprehensive assessment system addresses several purposes, each with implications for data use. These purposes include (1) assessments used to support learning and instruction, (2) assessments used to identify children who may need additional services, (3) assessments used for program evaluation and to monitor trends, and (4) assessments used for high-stakes accountability.3 These assessments can further be classified into three tiers, summative, interim, and formative.4

  • Summative assessments are often used as one-time high-stakes tests;
  • Interim assessments are those that are given a few times a year but are administered at the program, school, or district level;
  • Formative assessment is embedded in instruction and administered in an ongoing manner.

This brief focuses specifically on formative assessment.

Source: Center for Enhancing Early Learning Outcomes

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