Formative Assessment 101 – Part 2: Using Quick Pre-assessments

Pre-assessments can improve learning by telling the teacher where to begin instruction. Watch this 10-minute video for more on pre-assessments.

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Developed by Carla Evans & Jeri Thompson
National Center for the Improvement of Educational Assessment


Welcome to Module 2: Where the learner is now, Part 1: Using quick pre-assessments to elicit evidence of student strengths and learning needs. This module is part of Micro-Course 1: Learning Acceleration Using Formative Assessment Processes in the Classroom (Introductory Version) created by the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence and the Center for Assessment. There is an Introduction to Micro-Course 1 module that explains the purpose, organization, and intended use of each micro-course and should be watched first, if you have not already done so.

In preparation for digging deeper into pre-assessments, begin by reflecting on the following questions:

  1. What do you think are the purposes and uses of pre-assessments? And
  2. What strategies or tools do you use to pre-assess students?

Please pause the video and respond to the two questions either alone or with colleagues. After your reflection or discussion, resume playing the video.

When considering the purpose and use of pre-assessments, it’s important that we establish the belief that no student – regardless of background or experience – approaches a concept, topic, or skill “empty”. In other words, we don’t believe that students enter the classroom as blank slates. They come with funds of knowledge or a collection of knowledge based on their prior learning, their cultural practices, and daily routines. Seeking out these funds of knowledge offers teachers a chance to have a more complex view of what students know and can do and identify the assets students bring into the classroom. For example, if students enter into a first year vocal or instrumental music class, we shouldn’t make assumptions that they don’t know how to read music or that they are unable to sing with a group. It is very possible that some students have had private piano lessons or they sing in their church choir.

Students have unique constellations of learning strengths and needs. Students arrive in our classrooms at different points along their learning journey, even if they are all in the same grade and around the same age. The use of pre-assessment assumes students may have different background knowledge and skills that can serve as the basis for developing understandings.

Pre-assessments are a part of the formative assessment process, providing feedback to teachers and students prior to new learning. Pre-assessments are a way to collect information about what students already know and can do and any gaps or misconceptions that must be addressed. In this way, pre-assessments can prime future learning.

Pre-assessment is intricately related to learning acceleration because it allows the teacher to utilize “just in time” instruction rather than remediating off-grade level standards separated from grade level work. Pre-assessments can improve learning by telling the teacher where to begin instruction. For example, a third grade teacher should teach grade level expectations and scaffold in necessary previous grade expectations.

Let’s clear up a common misconception before we discuss the characteristics of pre-assessments.

A pre-assessment is not the same as a pre-test / post-test model. Using an end-of-year test at the beginning of the year or unit tells a lot about what students do not know about the unit or course content and little about what they do know. For example, if I gave an end-of-year physics test to incoming physics students, the only information I would gain is that my students know very little about physics!

However, if I really want to find out my students’ developing understandings relevant to a particular concept or upcoming unit/lesson of instruction in physics (such as one of Newton’s laws, for example), I would select or design a pre-assessment that would reveal this information.
There are a few fundamentals that the teacher should consider to ensure that a pre-assessment can be used as part of the formative assessment process.

First, the pre-assessment should make student thinking visible in relation to important goals of the unit and/or crucial pre-cursor knowledge, skills, and understandings.

Generally, multiple-choice and true-false items do not lend themselves well to a pre-assessment as they do not make thinking visible. The one exception to this rule is if the multiple-choice item is designed around common misconceptions students have around a topic such that a student’s selected response allows instruction to be adjusted for that student. In general, multiple choice, true-false, or other types of selected response items can be modified to elicit student thinking if students are prompted to explain, defend, or justify their choices to the selected response question. Student reasoning can also be captured through a short, purposeful conversation with a student, especially if writing is not the focus of instruction.

Second, a pre-assessment does not need to have questions about every single concept, but rather should be limited to those that have predictable instructional implications–especially in the next set of lessons.

Finally, the pre-assessment should be administered shortly before the unit or lesson is taught so that the teacher has the most up-to-date information about students’ strengths and needs in order to make instructionally valid decisions. Pre-assessments only add value to the instructional plan when they can produce data that can be used to make instructional decisions.

This slide contains two example pre-assessment tools or strategies: concept maps and the one question technique. The rest of this module focuses on the one question technique, but you can click on the hyperlink at the bottom of the slide to read more about the concept map technique.

In short, as the name implies, the one question technique involves asking students to answer and explain their thinking related to just one question that gets at a central idea related to the topic you are about to introduce. We provide examples for science, math, and ELA on the next three slides.

The next slides provide pre-assessment examples from high school physical science, Gr 5 math, and Gr 1 ELA. You’ll notice the goals of the lesson are pre-specified with the state standard(s) noted, the pre-assessment question is aligned to the lesson goals, and the predictable instructional implications are stated such that the teacher could immediately sort the resulting student work into three piles to differentiate instruction in real-time. There’s no magic to three piles, but it tends to work well for a quick instructional response. Please pause the video and read all three, or choose one that most interests you. What questions do these examples raise for you, if any? Resume playing the video when you are done discussing these examples with your colleagues.

Although you can always create or design pre-assessment questions, you can also use pre-existing item banks or curriculum materials. Whatever items you choose, just make sure students briefly explain their thinking and (as appropriate) draw a visual model as student thinking must be made visible in order to use it to differentiate instruction! You can always add on the expectation that students explain their thinking to any question that you find.

Now it is your turn to apply the concepts in this module. Slides 15-17 contain practice activities for Gr 6 Physical Science, Gr 4 Math, and High School ELA. Choose at least one practice activity and answer the question on the slide either alone or with colleagues: What would you need to ask students to do in order to use this item for pre-assessment purposes? Pause the video and then resume playing when you are done answering the question or discuss it with your colleagues.

We hope you answered the question by saying something like, “I would need to ask students to explain why they selected the answer they did (that is, explain their thinking).” Then what would you need to do with the student responses? Pause and form an answer to that question. Then resume playing the video.

You’d need to analyze the resulting student work!  We talk more about student work analysis in Module 4, but this slide lists all the components. 

  1. Sort the student work intro three piles or groups:
    • What is the evidence of developing understanding that can be built upon?
    • What issues or concerns are evidenced in the student work?
  2. What are the next instructional steps based on the evidence?

Modules 3-4 in Micro-Course 1 go deeper into figuring out where the learner is now and how to close the gap between where the learner is and the grade level expectations.

We believe that it is essential to take a few minutes to reflect upon what you have heard and try to apply it to your professional practice.  Pause to reflect and respond to the following:

  1. Describe the purpose, characteristics, and fundamentals of designing or selecting a pre-assessment.
  2. Consider an upcoming lesson or unit of study that you teach. What are the learning goals?
  3. What pre-assessment question(s) could you develop based on the goals for your unit or lesson? What are the instructional implications for each? 
  4. Describe one way your pre-assessment could be used by students to set, monitor, or adjust their own learning goals.
  5. What is one key takeaway and one lingering question you have after  listening to this module?

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