Angela Freese is an author and speaker with expertise in assessment, leadership, system improvement, and strategic planning. Most recently, Angela served as a director of research, assessment, and accountability, as well as a director of learning analytics and systems improvements for school districts in the greater Minneapolis-St. Paul area.

Formative or Per-formative: Using Student Evidence of Learning in the Right Ways

If your classroom was to become (or currently is) a picture for a social media post, how many likes would it get? How many retweets?

In truth, to how many of you would that even matter? What if your principal or superintendent suddenly broadcasts a message saying, “Everyone, stop what you’re doing and take a picture of your learning environment right now!” Would you be eager to share or completely mortified? I can admit, at various moments throughout my career, I have been on both ends of that continuum…and everyplace in between!

I pose this question because I have been overwhelmed lately, trying to understand how our profession has become so performative. That is, performative about things other than what we ought to be regularly monitoring for the betterment of our students. While the advancements of social media, virtual connection, and digital communication are incredibly powerful and contributive to our efficiency and effectiveness, I keep wondering why my feeds are filled with images that supposedly exemplify visible snapshots of perfection. The “perfect” classroom with the perfect anchor charts and posted learning targets and colored pattern of carpet squares. The perfect learning resource with the perfect font (that took someone 87 minutes to find and download and use) or the perfect class photo (that you had to take 14 times until everyone was looking at the camera and smiling). The perfect [fill-in-the-blank] that you feel pressure to hold yourself accountable to. Which I find to be quite interesting, as I have yet to discover research or literature that communicates how the “perfect” font used on x-graphic organizer directly correlates to high levels of achievement for students or drastically improves one’s ability to communicate specific, timely feedback to learners about their current level of performance.

The right resources
For the record, yes…I believe that our classrooms should be clean, organized, and efficient. As a classroom teacher, I took great pride in the affective nature of my materials and knew that visually appealing resources were meaningful for my students in taking that first step toward engaging in today’s learning. But I realized – far too late, admittedly – that the time and energy I was placing into the creation of such performative measures was limiting my ability to have time for the creation of instructional resources, feedback loops, well-designed assessments, and other conditions for student-centered classrooms that were actually proven to mobilize students and result in the improved levels of academic performance I was seeking.

My curiosity will walk us down a path to consider what “images” would be revealed for the things we cannot so tangibly see. Who is telling the narrative or describing patterns in student achievement? For conferring with students about their strengths and next steps? For helping students see hope and possibility in their academic fortitude through building self-efficacy and self-assurance within them?

Consider this blog your permission to reflect upon, and hopefully let go of, practices that are demonstrative (performative) and replace them with practices that are investments (formative). Let us further explore this idea of formative and performative as it relates to assessment design and use in our classrooms.

Formative assessment is an essential practice for deepening student understanding of content and, as such, improving their demonstration of learning. Rick Stiggins and Rick DuFour (2009) offer this context regarding its use:

“Formative assessments are part of an ongoing process to monitor each student’s learning on a continuous basis. Formative assessments typically measure a few things frequently and are intended to inform teachers regarding the effectiveness of their practice and to inform students of their next steps on the scaffolding of learning. When done well, formative assessment advances and motivates, rather than merely reports on, student learning. The clearly defined goals and descriptive feedback to students provide them with specific insights regarding how to improve, and the growth they experience helps build their confidence as learners.”

The root of the issue
My dear friend and colleague, Cassie Erkens, taught me years ago that the Latin root for the word assess is assire, which means “to sit beside.” The imagery evoked from this way of thinking about assessment has forever changed my assertions and advocacy about this work. Formative assessment is not an event, but an experience; one in which I have the opportunity to walk alongside my learners, giving them specific guidance and corrective feedback about their current levels of understanding and performance relative to the essential content and skills we are seeking to master. Using formative assessment as a means to explore what a student can actually do with the things you have been teaching moves instructional practices from “did they get it right?” to “at what level do they know it?” What a gift to have such information about students’ performance as you make decisions about where to go next with your instruction.

And yet, my work across the country has revealed that appropriate and engaging use of formative assessment is not a consistent practice throughout our classrooms. While I do see many teams administering formative assessments as part of their instruction cycle, it is the adult behaviors that come after the assessment which give me great pause. Observations in classrooms or discussions during team meetings indicate that, in some situations, the formative assessment is given because it is a requirement from the principal. The teams give the assessment, score it, enter it in the grade book, and then move on with the next instructional activity without discussion or use of that evidence to respond to student learning needs. Teams are often initially confused when I ask questions about this practice. They show me the pieces of paper that outline the desired behaviors, policies, and protocols as evidence of proof that they are doing what they have been asked to do.

When teams operate out of such compliance, rather than courage and commitment to the work, they are treading in dangerous waters. Misunderstanding the intention and purpose of formative assessment as a guide to support instructional decision making and improve student achievement can have devastating effects for students and teachers alike. The intention that formative assessment would serve as a catalyst for high levels of student learning has instead, in the case illustrated above, become a performative action.

What’s in a word?
What do I mean by the word “performative,” as it relates to assessment? Merriam Webster’s definition of performative describes “being or relating to an expression that serves to effect a transaction or that constitutes the performance of the specified act by virtue of its utterance”. In other words, if our focus rests on the declaration of formative assessment administration in classrooms, as opposed to the actual use of that evidence to guide discussions with collaborative teams, reflect on instructional practices, and implement modifications to future instruction based on that evidence, we have mistakenly absolved each other from accepting any responsibility for those results. And as such, we have removed our best chance of interrupting misconceptions or errors in student work, providing students with focused, timely feedback about their strengths and next steps, and – ultimately – enhancing student achievement and ensuring high levels of learning for all.

Let us consider the following shifts in practice, as we lean into our collaborative teacher teams for support:


From… To…
We develop common formative assessments as a team at the request of our principal. Our team creates common formative assessments so that we can collaboratively design tools that will provide us with common evidence of student learning. We believe that common evidence will help us improve our collective capacity as a team to respond to student learning needs.
We bring our common assessment scores to the team meeting and compare proficiency between classrooms. Our team’s common assessments allow us to bring actual student work to the table, which helps us determine patterns and trends in student performance. We can see how kids were thinking through their demonstration of learning, and we can make changes to our future instruction based on what we see in the evidence from students.
We talk about student performance on the common assessment and then tell students where they need to do better. Our team reviews evidence of student learning and then determines what we might need to change about our instructional practices, so that students can be more successful in mastering the essential content. We then differentiate our support or confer with students to share feedback on what they need to do next in their learning progression. Our feedback builds student confidence and their desire to stay invested in their learning.

Formative assessment is not a practice that should be administered simply because it is the will of someone else. It is not something we do on Fridays. It is not something we check off a list. It is not something we use to compare, marginalize, elevate, or ostracize individual teachers with their collaborative learning team. Those adult actions create performative situations that are false representations of what formative assessment is and can be for teachers and students alike.

Instead, ensure that formative assessment practices not only inform, but transform, our actions to ensure high levels of achievement for each and every learner we have committed to serve.


Stiggins, R. & DuFour, R. (2009). Maximizing the Power of Formative Assessments. Phi Delta Kappan.

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