Why Everyone Believes In Formative Assessment, But Nobody Does It


We know formative assessment is one of our most powerful tools for improving student learning.

Keeping tabs on what students are getting—and what they’re struggling with—in real time is one of our most powerful ways to improve teaching and learning.

When we can adjust our teaching moment by moment, and day by day, we can stop flying blind, like an airline pilot who knows the destination but never bothers to check the instruments mid-flight.

Formative assessment allows us to make sure that what we’re teaching is what students need, and that they’re actually benefitting from our instruction.

The Problem with Formative Assessment

The only problem? We barely use it.

In most schools, formative assessment is more of an aspiration than a reality.

Why? It’s hard.

It’s hard to give good formative assessments, it’s hard to use them quickly, and it’s hard to monitor formative assessment in your school because—by its very nature nature—it’s so fleeting.

To paraphrase G.K. Chesterton, it’s not so much that formative assessment has been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.

As a science teacher, I gave “exit slips” at the end of class to learn what made sense to students, and what they didn’t get from the day’s lesson.

My goal was to review them and figure out what I needed to do the next day to close the gaps in students’ understanding.

Too often, though, I’d take home five rubber-banded bricks of exit slips in my briefcase…and bring them back the next day, unexamined. I tried, but often I didn’t succeed in looking at the 120+ slips of paper that I’d collected.

This was partially due to a lack of discipline on the part of my 21-year-old self, but also partially due to the inefficiency of the process.

Inefficiency matters for formative assessment, but it’s something we don’t like to talk about in education.

Our Allergy to Efficiency

Could I have worked harder and used formative assessment more effectively in my class? Could I have read every last one of those exit tickets at the end of the day?

Absolutely. And I should have.

But educators’ lives are full of things we “should” do. I also should have called a dozen kids’ parents with positive news, and collaborated with the SPED teacher, and aligned my lesson plans to the standards, and cleaned my desk, and fixed that broken chair at the back of the room.

No matter how true it is that we should do something, the reality is that we can’t do everything we’re supposed to do. Not well, at least.

And we especially don’t have time to do things that are inefficient and cumbersome, though we hate to admit it.

We don’t like talking about efficiency in education. It feels lazy to even bring it up. It feels like complaining. We act like we’re allergic to it.

But efficiency is our single greatest opportunity for improvement, because by definition, inefficiency is waste.

If I have a hole in my pocket, and my money is falling out, I don’t need to earn more money to have more—I just need to repair the hole.

But many of the inefficiencies in schools are structural. They can’t be fixed by a single person acting alone, because they were created by leadership in the first place. The same systems that made sense years ago when they were implemented are now the source of inefficiencies that slow us down.

Is change possible? Yes, but it’ll take leadership.

Formative assessment has huge potential for increased efficiency, but our practice can only change with leadership.

The Challenges of Formative Assessment Leadership

If formative assessment has so much potential, why aren’t school leaders making it happen? To be sure, some are. But many more aren’t.

To understand why, we need to think about how we can shape teachers’ formative assessment practices. As an organizational manager, how do you exercise influence and make things happen?

For starters, communication matters. Leaders who communicate their priorities clearly and consistently tend to get more of those priorities actually accomplished.

Do we communicate about formative assessment? Perhaps a bit, but consider what else we have to communicate about—the competition for our limited bandwidth:

  • Improvement initiatives
  • Curriculum and professional development
  • Summative assessments
  • Data analysis
  • Goal-setting

Formative assessment is closely related to these issues, but it may not make the cut when it comes time to write the newsletter, hold the faculty meeting, or set the agenda for improvement work.

As leaders, we like data. We like things we can see. And too often, formative assessment is invisible to us.

The Challenges of Using Ephemeral Data

Have you ever heard the saying “What gets measured is what gets done“?

It’s true, and it explains part of our challenge in leading formative assessment.

To put it mildly, formative assessment is difficult to measure. It’s difficult to monitor. It’s difficult to collect data on.

Do you have any data about the math problems students solved on slates or scratch paper two weeks ago in Mrs. Smith’s classroom?

Do you know what percentage of students were able to explain photosynthesis halfway through Mr. Johnson’s science lesson last Tuesday?

Of course not, and you don’t need to. By definition, formative assessment data is for adjusting instruction, not for reporting. You certainly don’t want to hold teachers or students accountable for formative assessment scores, since the learning is still in progress.

If you do collect formative assessment data of some type, you’re probably making the process less efficient…which, as we saw above, is a real problem.

And do you really want 120 exit slips, every day, from every science teacher? Of course not.

But if you collect no data at all, you won’t be able to guarantee that formative assessment is being used effectively. You won’t be able to help the teachers who need help.

And that’s the norm in our profession.

It’s totally normal for some teachers to do great formative assessment, others to take half-measures, and the majority to do almost nothing at all.

But do you want your school to be normal?

We Can Do Better Because…Technology

I don’t believe that technology is a silver bullet. There are plenty of problems that tech can’t fix for us.

But technology is great at fixing efficiency problems, and formative assessment leadership is largely an efficiency problem:

  • It’s more efficient to administer formative assessments with technology
  • It’s more efficient to examine the responses and analyze the data with technology
  • It’s more efficient to share information with colleagues and administrators via technology
  • It’s easier to monitor school-wide practices and trends with technology
  • It’s easier to focus supports on the right students—and teachers—with technology

So I was excited to learn that ExitTicket, which is already used by countless thousands of teachers, has a dashboard for administrators called Coachr.


I learned about Coachr last year, and over the past few months, I’ve been working with ExitTicket on a free professional development program to help schools make good use of it.

This program, the Formative Assessment Challenge, is now open for registration, and it’s 100% free.

Formative Assessment Challenge

Our Vision

In schools using cutting-edge formative assessment practices:

  • Students get feedback multiple times per class period
  • Teachers know, in real time, if their instruction is achieving its aims, and can adjust accordingly
  • Administrators know which students need additional help, and which teachers to consult for winning strategies

Formative assessment strategies like exit slips and conferring have been around for decades, but they’re incredibly challenging to implement consistently, because they’re laborious, time-consuming practices…unless we allow technology to do what it does best.

What is The Challenge?

The Formative Assessment Challenge is designed to help school administrators and teacher-leaders implement high-leverage formative assessment strategies using technology in a 1:1/BYOD setting.

Rally a group of your interested faculty to explore exiting new practices and tools in formative assessment by joining The Challenge.

Over the course of 4-6 weeks, you’ll be guided through the process of:

  • Implementing powerful formative assessment practices
  • Using student or school devices in a 1:1 ratio for instant data collection
  • Analyzing school-level trends and identifying best practices for helping students attain mastery

What are teachers expected to do?

In The Challenge, teachers will be asked to start giving two types of formative assessments:

  • First, “Do Now” formative assessments at the beginning of class
  • Second, we’ll add “exit tickets” at the end of class
  • To take these assessments, students will use their web-enabled devices as “clickers” to respond to teacher-generated questions

What are the benefits for students?

  • Faster, standards-linked, mastery-based feedback on their learning
  • More relevant instruction targeted to their specific learning needs
  • Earlier intervention for struggling students

What are the benefits for teachers?

  • Less time spent on grading
  • Faster, more frequent formative assessment
  • Easier adjustments to instruction, based on student understanding, in real time
  • Free, high-quality professional development on formative assessment from The Principal Center

What are the benefits for school administrators?

  • School-level view of formative assessment data in real time
  • “Bright spots” analysis tools for identifying and sharing best practices
  • Free access to the leading formative assessment tools during the Challenge
  • Free, high-quality professional development on formative assessment leadership from The Principal Center

Requirements for Participation

  • 1 or more participating administrator(s)—you can sign yourself up now
  • Eventually, you’ll need to form a team of 5 or more participating classroom teachers (ideally a department or team)
  • 1 web-enabled device (iOS, Android, Windows, Mac, or Chrome OS) per student—”BYOD” (Bring Your Own Device) or 1:1 device program
  • Wifi in participating classrooms

If you are in an elementary or non-1:1 school, we’ll have additional options in the future, but if you’re in a secondary school that meets the tech requirements, join the Formative Assessment Challenge today and we’ll get you started! We’ll contact you during the challenge about forming your “vanguard” teacher team.

Click here to register »

Register for the Formative Assessment Challenge »

The Price of Excellence: Managing the Stress of Leadership

How hard should we push ourselves?

Educators are known for being a hardworking, selfless lot. This can be good for kids, because it means they get our best, but it’s not always sustainable.

Kids don’t benefit when we burn out (more on this below).

Do you know a fellow principal who’s had to take a medical leave due to stress, or even had to find a less stressful position altogether?

I do—it’s far too common.

And yet, I believe that we can both push ourselves hard and avoid burnout. It all has to do with our understanding of stress.

Eustress and Distress

It’s not healthy to have an excess of stress, but it’s not healthy to have zero stress, either. We need a bit of drive—in fact, if we’re going to do right by our students, I’d suggest we need a LOT of drive.

Clinicians distinguish between eustress, or “good stress,” and distress, the more commonly understood bad type of stress. We need to maintain a healthy level of eustress, without pushing ourselves into distress territory.

There’s a middle ground between coasting and burning out, and that’s where we can hit our stride as high performance instructional leaders.

Choosing Stress

The summer after high school graduation, I worked at Six Flags Astroworld and played video games. Not much distress, but not much eustress, either.

I didn’t go home worrying about anything, but I also didn’t make much of a difference in the world, manning the gift shop by the Batman roller coaster.

As school leaders, we’ve chosen a career that matters. We’ve challenged ourselves to make a difference in the lives of kids. We’ve chosen a certain level of stress.

But how can we stay fully engaged with that challenge, without killing ourselves?

Balancing The Stress Equation

Stress is a result of the gap between the expectations we hold ourselves to, and our capacity for meeting those expectations:

Stress = Expectations – Capacity

In other words, if you don’t expect too much of yourself, you won’t experience much stress, and the more you can increase your capacity to meet those expectations, the lower your stress will be.

The problem is that expectations of principals are wildly out of control. You know what I mean.

Everyone expects you to do everything. You’re accountable to everyone, for everything, including plenty of things you don’t have much control over.

You’re caught in the middle, between front-line challenges and top-down accountability. You’re the focal point for just about every reform, every problem, every decision.

(And, as I was reminded in a phone conversation yesterday, many of us teach, too!)

We need to get expectations under control if we’re going to have any chance of feeling successful and getting our stress under control.

We have to decide what’s allowed to cause us stress. We have to filter the expectations others place on us, before we internalize them.

And the key tool for doing this is your leadership agenda.

Your Leadership Agenda Is Your Filter

As an instructional leader, you’re responsible for just about everything, but you can’t let every little issue stress you out.

I’m not talking about being chill and and wearing a Hawaiian shirt (though if that’s your style, more power to you).

I’m talking about being selective, about deciding what the real issues that deserve your attention are, and articulating those in a written, confidential document I call the leadership agenda.

Having a “hidden” agenda might sound a little underhanded, but it’s not. It’s the ultimate act of leadership—to decide what matters right now, and make decisions with those priorities in mind.

Everything else may still need to be dealt with, whether it’s gum on the floor or a phone call from an irate parent, but it doesn’t need to add to your stress.

What About Everything Else?

But how is this possible? How can we be responsible for the gum on the floor, and the other small problems that crop up every day, without being weighed down by them?

How can we keep the little stuff under control, while keeping our eyes on the big picture?

Some people will tell you to just delegate. Of course having a competent, empowered team is essential, but that’s not really a solution.

The solution is to have a system, an approach to high-performance instructional leadership that includes strategies, tools, and habits for dealing with everything that comes your way.

If that sounds like a tall order, it is. That’s why the High-Performance Instructional Leadership Network, our flagship program for school administrators, is a 12-month program with more than 60 hours of on-demand content. 

But you can start with just a few simple actions, which I’ll be sharing in a free webinar on Wednesday, March 11:

The Stress Equation: Strategies for High-Performance Instructional Leadership

If you need to get your stress level under control, I want to invite you to join me for a free webinar next Wednesday, March 11 at 11am CDT.

The Stress Equation: Strategies for High-Performance Instructional Leadership
9am Pacific
10am Mountain
11am Central
12pm Eastern

In this webinar, you’ll learn how to keep your stress level under control while maximizing your impact on student learning. We’ll explore:

  • Why stress is a choice—and how you can optimize your stress level to help you get more done without burning out.
  • The three factors that create high performance, and how you can put them to work for you.
  • The leadership tool that high-performance principals use for making every decision
  • How to build the overall level of leadership capacity in your school, so you’re not acting alone
  • The research on principal stress and turnover, and what you can do to keep yourself—and other leaders in your district—in the game

Click Here to Register

5 Pathways to High-Performance Instructional Leadership Video 1: Breaking Through The Workload Barrier

I’m pleased to announce that registration is now open for the High-Performance Instructional Leadership Network, and to celebrate, I want to share with you the best free video series we’ve ever created.

Here’s 5 Pathways to High-Performance Instructional Leadership, Part 1, in which we explore the workload barrier, and how to break through it.

Enjoy, and stay tuned for the remaining videos!