Quick Formative Assessment of Student Writing

Since reading Bill Ferriter's post on whether or not true formative assessment is possible, I've been wondering how I could make my own formative assessments more efficient. This post features a screencast of me looking at student work for the purposes of formative assessment.


Formative assessment is continuous assessment. In the context of writing workshop, formative assessment occurs during mini-lessons when I ask students to do a small task and I circulate to watch what students are writing. Formative assessment happens as I conference with individual students. And, formative assessment requires me glancing at student work as I prepare for lessons.


One common misconception of formative assessment is that teachers need to collect and "grade" all work multiple times. Continual collecting and grading takes tons of time. I feel buried in piles of stories. I also find myself writing the same type of comment over and over again - which takes even more time. Do students even read the comments I write?


Below are some tricks to make formative assessments go more quickly.

1. Know exactly what you're looking for.
Formative assessment in writing isn't about making a piece "perfect." The purpose is to see whether or not students have internalized the teaching points from prior lessons. Find a couple star examples to show the class. The example may be only a sentence or two. Write down names of students who need small group or individual review.


2. Have students highlight examples of mini-lesson mastery in their work. Formative assessment is also about student self-reflection. To what extent does a student believe he or she has mastered the mini-lesson? Does his/her idea of mastery meet the grade-level standard? Not only do highlights demonstrate student understanding of the objective, the highlights allow you to more easily skim through a piece of work.


3. Skim Yes, skim. Assuming you've planned a unit of mini-lessons that will scaffold students to quality final products, you are are free to skim in order to make sure each scaffolded piece is in place. Yes, you will carefully read student work for the summative assessment. Do that later. Right now, you're looking for mastery of specific objectives.


4. Refrain from writing comments on individual papers. Write post-its instead. It takes a long time to write a comment over and over and over. Instead, write the teaching point on a post it. As you skim, write down names of a few students who have mastered the teaching point(s). Also, write names of students who need reteaching. Those who need reteaching will later be pulled into a small group. Also, they can be assigned temporary "mentors", or students who can help and encourage their growth on that particular skill.


5. Look for patterns in student work. Those patterns become the basis for future mini-lessons.
Below is an example of how I do quick formative assessments.


While I generally do it without paper, the process can be easily adapted to paper-based settings.




It took me around 8 minutes to look at three student papers. That is longer than I anticipated it would take, but I don't look at every child's paper every day. I view only four to five papers per day and then pull those students for small group or individual conferences during writing time. Based on what I saw in the screencast papers, I would plan subsequent lessons with consideration for the following:

  • "Brag" about the description I'm seeing in student work. I'd highlight a few sentences from student 1's work. Student 1 is a struggling writer, so I do my best to make him or her feel proud of accomplishments. I'd then ask all student to see if they had specific room features and smells in their pieces of writing.
  • Ask students to find setting description in the middle and end of their pieces - description is  important throughout the story. Could they describe the magical creatures encountered? The sweat-stained uniforms at the end of the sporting event? (Give students time to search with their writing partners and make suggestions)
  • For independent writing time, I'd have student 4 work with students 1 and 3 on punctuation of dialogue. While student 4s dialogue wasn't punctuated perfectly, his/her paragraphing as well as capitalization at the beginning of dialogue is the next step for students 1 and 3. I'd then pull student 4 individually to discuss commas vs. periods before the end of quotations as well as the use of capital letters after the quotation. Basically, student 4 needs a sense of where a dialogue sentence ends.
Finally, I'd ask some of my teaching partners whether or not they are seeing the same things? Could we team up and trade students for quick follow-up mini-lessons?
What tricks do you have for efficient management of formative assessments? Please share.

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Tags: assessment, assessments, community, efficience, formative, learning, professional, technology, writing

Comment by Denise Harris on September 24, 2011 at 8:56pm
I really appreciate your post and video!  I am new to primary and while a formative assessment in writing will be far less complex than your example, the video you posted has definitely helped my brian develop some great ideas!  Thank you so much!
Comment by Janet Abercrombie on September 27, 2011 at 5:26am
Pleasure, Denise. Please let me know what formative assessments you develop!


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