Attempts at formative assessment are plagued by the iceberg problem - we rarely see the root causes of student misunderstanding

The Unfulfilled Promise of Formative Assessment

Formative assessment is one of those buzzwords you hear a lot in education.

We all agree that it’s a great idea…in theory. And just knowing the term has it’s benefits. Before I’d heard of formative assessment, I never thought too much about the difference between grading and assessment.

I still remember sitting at my first ever faculty meeting, over twenty years ago. The principal was going over expectations and policies. And I kept hearing this unfamiliar term: assessment.

“Make sure you give at least 15 assessments each quarter…Students and parents need to be notified of each assessment at least a week in advance…Keep your books organized — there should be no doubt when a parent challenges an assessment.”

I leaned over to the teacher in the next seat and asked, “What are assessments?”

“You know, tests and quizzes. They’re your grades.”

I couldn’t believe we were spending so much time talking about grades. And the idea that someone would question our grades? Wasn’t it our responsibility and privilege to assign students the grades we thought they deserved?

I had expected we’d talk about making our lessons engaging, or building strong relationships with our students.

Instead, I came away feeling that our top priority was to rate and sort our students…and that to protect ourselves from claims of favoritism or neglect, we needed a paper trail.

What Is Formative Assessment?

Fortunately, a lot about assessment has changed since my first days in the classroom. Most grading conversations include at least some mention of formative assessment.

In simplest terms, an assessment is formative if it’s meant to inform instruction. It’s a two-step process. First, we figure out what students know and what they don’t. Then, we adapt instruction based on what we learn.

The term “formative assessment” was first used by Michael Scriven in 1967. But teachers have used formative assessments long before the term was coined. You could argue that, without formative assessment, we’re not really teaching. We’re just preaching.

A teacher may need to repeat a topic that students didn’t understand the first time. She may need to speed up, slow down, or use different strategies for different learners. (This idea has led to the infamous — and persistent — “learning styles” mythology.)

Formative assessment usually involves collecting and studying student data. But formative assessments don’t need to be formal. Any time a teacher slows down because she sees confusion on her students faces — that’s a formative assessment. 

Why the Promise of Formative Assessment Remains Unfulfilled 

There is strong evidence that formative assessment increases student engagement and achievement.

But while awareness of formative assessment has increased, many misconceptions remain. And even the most progressive schools tend to prioritize grading over assessment.

So why has the promise of formative assessment remained unfulfilled? 

Because even with the best of intentions, formative assessment is hard to implement. First, assessments need to be designed for formative use. Meaning that after students complete an assessment, it should be clear which standards have, or have not, been met.

But since most assessments are designed for grading, they don’t do this particularly well. We can tell who really got it, by the 97% on the top of their page. And the student who earned an ‘F’ clearly did not get it.

Classroom Resources

But beyond the percentage, we usually know very little about why students struggle.

And even when we know why students struggle, it can be tough to address the issue. Most of our classes are designed for a single learning path. There’s no time to review content or build skills from previous grade levels. Or to create customized learning plans when students have differing needs.

And even if we had the time, few educators have the curriculum plans or resources to teach different content to each student.

Fulfilling the promise of formative assessment is no small feat. But it is possible. First, we need to address three obstacles: the Iceberg Problem, the One-Bridge Problem, and the Report Card Problem.

The Iceberg Problem

The Iceberg Problem is the result of assessments that take a narrow view of student understanding. A typical unit test tells us what percentage of content a student has remembered. But it tells us little about that student’s potential. Or why a student is having difficulty.Good formative assessments address the iceberg problem by uncovering misunderstandings from prior grade levels

If our goal is to compare students, this system works. Billy got 65% of the questions right on the test. Yesenia got 98% right. Clearly, Yesenia knows more than Billy.

But this information offers little help for targeting support. If Billy did all his homework during the unit, what went wrong? He likely had gaps from prior grade levels. Try as he might, the material just didn’t make sense.

It’s even more complicated if Billy didn’t do his homework. It’s easy to point to the missing homework as the cause of the problem. But just as often, his skill gaps were the cause of his missing homework, rather than vice-versa.

We can target instruction based on his mistakes, but that merely chips away the tip of the iceberg. With enough scaffolding, we can even make him appear proficient. This approach allows schools to pass students from grade to grade, without ever addressing skill gaps.

And what about Yesenia? Do we just give her gold stars all year for being great? Do we worry about the 2% of questions she missed? When does she take a test that truly challenges her? 

Even good assessments typically only measure standards from the current grade level. When students are above or below grade level, we’re left to guess what they need.

The One Bridge Problem

Schools that specifically identify gaps in student understanding have taken an important first step. But to be formative, those assessments must influence what we teach, and how we teach it.

The problem is that our education system just isn’t designed for such flexibility.

Each state has a list of standards to be covered in each subject, at each grade level. To ensure each standard is addressed, these standards are transformed into textbooks and curriculum maps. Teachers are expected to move their classes through each standard at a set pace.

Large class sizes, standardized tests, and mass-marketed textbooks all fit perfectly with this model. They support teaching every student the same material, at the same pace, and in the same way.

While more educators recognize the limitations of the industrial model of education, few practical solutions exist. 

The standard approach is to start with such a One Bridge Model and then differentiate: providing scaffolds and extra support to students who need it. It’s a nice idea, but it’s just not practical, given most teachers’ workloads.

Imagine you ran a company that needed uniforms for all of its employees. Would you buy everyone the same size, and figure out how to “scaffold” everyone into their uniforms? Wouldn’t it be a lot easier to start with uniforms that fit, rather than tailoring each uniform? Or squeezing people into ill-fitting outfits?

The same goes for our classrooms. It’s impossible to design classrooms for the average, and still create unique experiences for each student by tailoring the program on the fly.

The Report Card Problem

I still remember what it was like to return graded assignments back to my students. Almost without fail, they flipped right to the back page to see their grades.

If they liked the number, they brightened. Some fist-pumped. If not, they sulked. Maybe even crumpled the paper into their bag and stalked off in a huff.

I spent a ridiculous amount of time providing feedback on student work. But all they seemed to care about was the number.

At the time, I was annoyed. “They care more about their grades than about learning!” But now I realize that we — the adults, the school system — taught them to value grades over learning.

Grades determine who gets into the honors track, who gets the scholarship, and who gets into Harvard. Who goes to summer camp, and who goes to summer school.

Grades have evolved to become the currency of the classroom. They determine who gets into the honors track, who gets the scholarship, and who gets into Harvard. Who goes to summer camp, and who goes to summer school.

In some schools, poor grades can even get you suspended from a sports team, or land you in detention.

This is the essence of The Gradebook Problem. We can’t expect students to embrace constructive feedback, if that feedback has inherent value.

Imagine your boss gives you a list of all the ways you could improve. “By the way,” he tells you on your way out, “your pay will be reduced by 20% until you make the improvements.” Would you embrace the feedback, or argue the pay reduction? Be honest.

Some have proposed that teachers shouldn’t grade formative assessment at all. I’ve explained why this is a bad (or at least, incomplete) idea, in my article on Standards-Based Grading.

How Educators Can Remove the Barriers to Formative Assessment

Schools that want to make formative assessment work should look to address the Iceberg Problem, the One-Bridge Problem, and the Gradebook Problem.

Even addressing one of these problems can go a long way. Here is how your school, district, or classroom can take steps toward fulfilling the promise of formative assessment.

Communicating a Vision for Formative Assessment

Any change can cause anxiety among those who are comfortable with the status quo.

Our grading systems affect many stakeholders within each school community. Even those who want change may feel they are better off with “the devil they know,” rather than the uncertainty of a new system.

Parents want a grading system that builds their child’s confidence and makes them look good on a transcript. Teachers want a system that motivates students — but won’t add to their already-heavy workload.

School and district leaders need to balance all of these concerns. While ensuring that grades are a reliable indicator of student learning.

But before making major changes, it’s important to educate (not ask) all stakeholders. This is true, whether you’re a teacher implementing formative assessment in your classroom, or a superintendent making district-wide changes.

Formative assessment is more effective for promoting and measuring student learning. Make sure members of your community understand that. And help them see the hidden side-effects of traditional grading.

Formative Assessment and Curriculum Planning

Schools must also address the practical challenges of formative assessment. That starts with creating flexible curriculum plans that allow teachers to respond to assessments.

Unfortunately, such curriculum plans don’t come out of a box. 

First, the curriculum needs to be tailored to match what you already know about your students. Do most of your incoming 6th graders need to review fractions? Or will they be coming from summer math camp, looking for a challenge?

Once you’ve planned your curriculum around what you already know about your students, you need to plan for what you don’t yet know. How will you respond if the whole class bombs a test? What if two students do?

The three bridges design for learning uses formative assessment to balances differentiation with content coverage and the teaching of standards

The Three Bridges Design for Learning was created to answer these exact questions. Three-Bridges classrooms divide instructional time into content coverage (Bridge 1), personalized learning (Bridge 2), and inquiry-based learning (Bridge 3). All three bridges work in concert, helping teachers strike a balance between moving through standards and responding to student needs.

Schedule a free consultation with a curriculum specialist, to find out how Three-Bridges can help your school achieve its goals.

Supporting Teachers with Formative Assessment

Schools hoping to fulfill the promise of formative assessment also need to ensure teachers have the time, training, and resources to implement formative assessment.

Time: Formative assessment adds to an already heavy teacher workload. And it’s not fair or reasonable to expect that teachers will simply do it all on their prep time. Or on the weekends.

Schools looking to implement formative assessment should account for the time teachers will spend reviewing data and planning lessons based on that data.

This means providing coverage, reducing responsibilities, or helping teachers to Eliminate, Automate, and Delegate.


Training: It’s not easy to transition from a One Bridge, content coverage approach, to a differentiated 3-Bridges model. To make the change, teachers need professional development on Personalized Learning skills, such as responding to data, and student goal-setting

As for responding to data, PD on Inquiry-Based Learning will help with implementing low-floor, high-ceiling tasks. These self-differentiating activities involve a different approach to lesson planning, assessment, and facilitation.

If you’re looking to an introduce a group of staff to formative assessment concepts, schedule a private workshops. To support individual teachers in using formative assessment in their classrooms, consider offering the opportunity to work with an instructional coach who specializes in formative assessment.

Resources: Since textbooks aren’t designed to accommodate formative assessment, teachers will likely need to supplement.

An adaptive assessment is an effective way to measure skill-level across grade levels. These tests ask different questions based on student answers. Correct answers lead to more difficult questions, incorrect answers lead to foundational questions. Adaptive platforms, such as IXL and iReady use built-in adaptive assessments to assign differentiated lessons. 

Teachers will also want to respond to assessments offline, with small group instruction or collaborative tasks. These allow teachers to provide enrichment when students need more of a challenge, or to try different approaches when a textbook lesson isn’t working.

Fulfilling the Promise of Formative Assessment

Effective formative assessment plays a crucial role in implementing student-centered learning

For it to work, all stakeholders must reconsider their assumptions about learning and grading.

School leaders can help by giving teachers the flexibility to respond to assessments. And by providing professional development and resources that support formative assessment. Curriculum plans need to go beyond textbooks and focus on student needs.

Schools can proactively communicate the value of formative assessment and growth mindset. Help students understand that assessments aren’t a measure of their worth, or a competition with peers.

With a little creativity, and support from stakeholders, formative assessment is a powerful way to support students with diverse learning needs. 

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About the Author

Jeff Lisciandrello is the founder of Room to Discover and an educational consultant specializing in student-centered learning practicesJeff Lisciandrello is the founder of Room to Discover and an education consultant specializing in student-centered learning. His 3-Bridges Design for Learning helps schools explore innovative practices within traditional settings. He enjoys helping educators embrace inquiry-based and personalized approaches to instruction. You can connect with him via Twitter @EdTechJeff