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“Equity” and “Formative” Come Before “Summative” in More Than Just the Dictionary

According to Dictionary.com, formative is defined as “pertaining to formation or development.” A formative assessment is a non-graded tool that teachers use throughout the learning process to ensure students are forming and developing their learning prior to the summative assessment. As teachers, we know this, but we are always trying to learn more about how exactly we can use these “formatives” to gather data on our students and ultimately make our classrooms more equitable.

Once a formative assessment has been administered, students who are forming and developing on schedule should receive an enrichment opportunity so they can deepen their learning and students who are not on schedule should receive intervention.

The goal of formative assessment is to form and develop all students prior to the summative so they all perform well on the final test. Therefore, formative assessment is arguably a tool that teachers can use to ensure equity in their classroom, as many experts in the field attest to.

The most effective formative assessment we have found in our combined 33 years of teaching is a strategy called Learning Goals and Scales, from Robert Marzano’s book titled The Art and Science of Teaching: A Comprehensive Framework for Effective Instruction. According to meta-analysis performed by Marzano, the two highest percentile gains occur when students track their progress (a 34% increase) and set goals (a 25% increase).

Many of Marzano’s books leverage this data and suggest that teachers use Learning Goals and Scales to improve student learning. In our own 7-12 science and social studies classrooms, we tried using Marzano’s processes as instructed but found that although they appear effective on paper, they are not as powerful when executed in that same way. Therefore, we altered his suggested processes so any K-12 classroom can benefit from Learning Goals and Scales.

We begin every new unit by giving our students a quick pretest to determine their background knowledge. Students are then assigned a ranking on the learning goal’s scale (0-4) depending on how much they know. We found that using Learning Goals and Scales can be an emotional ride for students. To help level the playing field in a class of diverse learners, we make the pretest very challenging and rigorous so that nearly every student begins on the scale with a 0 (zero) rating. This starting point also provides proof to students that they still have a lot to learn! Using Learning Goals and Scales in this way helps us to teach students how to have a growth mindset.

Students receive a tracking sheet where they graph their movement on the scale. Everyone creates a bar graph and begins at the 0 (zero) rating. We then begin to teach students the information they need to know to move to a 1 rating.

Once that teaching is complete, we give students another formative assessment. Those students who pass the formative with 100% move to a 1 and those with a 50-99% move to a 0.5 rating. All other students remain on the 0 (zero) rating.

This is when we have conversations with students about their growth mindset. There is nothing wrong with them having a rating less than 1 because it simply means they have not learned the information yet.

We work with students to provide as-needed intervention. For example, we invite them to study sessions, contact their parents, include them in small group meetings during class, and call on them more often in class. The goal is to provide more support to students who may be meeting goals a little slower so they catch up to their peers.

This process continues until most of the students obtain a rating of a 3, indicating they’ve learned all the information that is required to pass the summative. Then students work on a voluntary extra project that allows them to deepen their knowledge on the subject. If they achieve an A on the summative and complete this extra project, which usually requires 30 minutes of work, they earn a 4 on the learning goal’s scale. We send positive notes home to these students’ parents, celebrating their achievement.

Students who have not yet earned a 3 rating receive additional intervention. We may provide further instruction with additional reading, videos, or practice, depending on the topic. For example, if we were teaching students the concept of osmosis, we know, based on their rating, where they are struggling. This data is then used to identify how we can best help each student with their individual needs moving forward.

In our experience, students perform better on summative tests for several reasons.

  1. We know who is struggling and when so we can provide intervention.
  2. We know who is forming and developing on schedule so we can provide enrichment.
  3. Students know when they are learning and when they are struggling.
  4. Students are given the opportunity to reflect on their efforts and make changes prior to the summative assessment.

Even our students noticed a difference in our teaching style. Some students in Jami’s high school biology class shared how they felt about using learning goals and scales.

Q: Did setting goals and reflecting on those goals make you study differently?

A: “Yes, I realized what I was doing wrong so I could fix it.”  – Brandy, 10th

A: “Yes, because if one didn’t work I would try a different way to study.”  – Miguel, 9th


Q: How did you feel when you accomplished your goal?

A: “It makes you feel proud of the hard work you put in.”  – Florence, 9th

A: “Good. Like I was actually learning and growing.”  – Robert, 11th

Jami found that nearly 82% of her high school biology students enjoyed using learning goals and scales and believed they were more motivated to work hard.

The term summative includes a Latin root word “sum” and in Latin “sumere” means “to take up.” When a student is able to take control of their learning, they can finally “take up” the information they need to be successful. This is why formative assessments must give students the opportunity to reflect and adjust their work level so they can maximize their learning. Hopefully, more teachers can use methods like this one to create student-engaged classrooms with a focus on equitable opportunities.

Jami Spencer has taught high school biology for 17 years to diverse student populations in the states of Arizona, Nevada, and Utah. She earned her Bachelors degree at Brigham Young University in Biology Composite Teaching and her Masters in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Nevada Las Vegas.

Tara Dale, a Nationally Board-Certified teacher (NBCT), has taught science and social studies in the 7-12 setting for 13 years.  She earned her B.S. in Psychology and Biology from Arizona State University and her Masters in Secondary Education from the University of Phoenix.  She is an instructional coach and sits on the Board of Directions for the AZ-NBCT Network.