The Case for Low-Stakes Assessments

low stakes formative assessments

Low-stakes assessments are our favorite way to keep up with the real-time progress of your students. But that word—assessments—triggers a complex in every student, educator, and teacher’s brain. Assessments, tests, evaluations… judgment. Low-stakes assessments, like formative assessments, aren’t meant to be scary or judgmental. In fact, this brand of assessment is something you probably do on a daily basis without breaking a sweat. They include exit tickets, homework, asking for head nods—anything that checks in with the students about their knowledge. The beauty of low-stakes assessments is that they are low-stakes. Non-threatening. Sans-punishment.

Formative assessments like do-nows and exit tickets are based on feedback as a way to drive learning. As Paul Bambrick-Santoyo says in his book Driven by Data, “Assessments are not the end of the teaching and learning process; they’re the starting point.” Instead of finding out that a student didn’t grasp a concept when they get to the big test, teachers can catch the misunderstanding early and pivot students to the right direction. The key using frequent, low-stakes assessments. It’s like going to the doctor for regular checkups instead of waiting until you’re pretty sure you have a kidney infection.

Knowing that a student doesn’t understand a concept while it’s still being taught allows teachers to adjust their reteaching appropriately. To make formative assessments formative, feedback must be done in a timely fashion. Returning homework after students take the big test is not helpful for anyone. The beauty of formative assessment is that it’s the teacher, not just the student, who is getting feedback on what’s working.

Susan Brookhart, in her book How to Give Effective Feedback to Your Students, says, “Feedback needs to come while students are still mindful of the topic, assignment, or performance in question. It needs to come when they still think of the learning goal as a learning goal… that is, something they are still driving for, not something they already did. It especially needs to come when they still have reason to work on the learning target. Feedback about a topic they won’t have to deal with again all year will strike students as pointless.”

Not only do low-stakes assessments give prescriptive, real-time insight, the feedback that goes with it can engage students. “Once students understand what they need to do and why, most students develop a feeling that they have control over their learning,” Brookhart writes. Students begin to take ownership of their learning process once they have an idea of the bigger picture and understand the doable steps for improvement. Simply put, a good feedback loop helps lessons gain traction with students.

A negative part of low-stakes assessments is that they must be done frequently to be effective. And for anyone who has a large Excel file of grades, you know how tedious it is to keep track of all those grades, concepts, and suggestions. But the saving grace of a formative assessment teaching strategy is that the benefits far outweigh the work that goes in, especially when there are tools out there to ease the process.

Another counterargument to low-stakes assessments come from those who fear the “Big Brother” effect. As we collect more information on our students, who gets to see all that data? Right now, laws are being passed to protect student information from corporate interests. The perception is that ed-tech is an $8 billion industry is foaming at the mouth to get their hands on student information. We’ll be discussing more on that perception next month.

Still, we at Gradeable are completely behind the formative lifestyle. On Wednesday, a blog post by Kattie will go over the different types of feedback. On March 6, we’re hosting our third Gradeable Social that will serve as an assessment support group of sorts. We’ll be gathering once again to talk shop on education best practices, so sign up here. Gradeable users get in free, so email bon@gradeable.com if you need a promo code.

Ready to get formative and the glorious data-driven instruction that comes with us? Come see us at www.gradeable.com to learn more. 


ProTip Wednesday: 5 Ways to Assess Student Understanding

how to assess student learning

We’ve all been there—you just gave a test and after receiving the results, you bury your head in your hands and ask yourself the big question: “Why didn’t they get it?”

teacher exit tickets

The “Getting It” process (also known as learning/achieving/mastering) is a teacher’s main goal —in addition to the other ten thousand other skills you want your little human beings to accomplish. In tune with our theme of assessment, our ProTip for Wednesday will be ways to assess your students.

Teachers have the innate ability to know every single facet of our students and if they “get it” or not, just by looking at them. But sometimes, we have to set up some check points before the Big Test to make sure that we’re 100% right and they’re each receiving the help they need before the Big Test.

Ask students to use the skill, rule or concept in a new context

Project-based learning or authentic assessment is one way to ask students to apply a recently taught skill as well as other nuanced skills like speech or writing. This teacher decided to have their middle school statistics class apply knowledge of data analysis and graphical representations through a relationship between life expectancy and water quality. (via Authentic Assessment Toolbox)

project based learning


2. Check-for-understanding questions

So now we know it’s not just about the Big Test, but it’s also not just about the Exit Ticket or quiz. Check-for-understanding (CFU) questions are tremendously important to informally assessing your students in the middle of a lesson, which can give you the redirection you need. These questions go beyond the typical, “Do we have any questions?” or “Put your thumbs up if you get it, and thumbs down if you do not.” You’re looking to answer the “why” and not the “what.” Here are some great questions to start with: (via the Christina School District)

  • How does __________ related to __________?
  • What can you infer from __________?
  • What evidence supports __________?
  • Can you tell me more?
  • Give your reasons

assess student learning

More importantly, it is important to prepare these questions beforehand and have integrate into your lesson plan. Planning ahead, according to this Edutopia article, allows more freedom and flexibility in interesting questions, rather than falling back on the same strategies.


3. Game-based learning

I used this strategy usually during final exam review time, as it was useful to have students confer with each other and then to come to a consensus answer. Download a blank How to Be a Millionaire template from my personal files! [Free download!]

game based learning


4. Self-assessment:

How can you get an accurate pulse of the comfort level of students? Self-assessment allows you to do an informal survey on how students are feeling on new concepts. Ginger Snaps did the above consensogram to gauge how well students understood landforms and oceans. She did this strategy at the beginning and end of any unit; this is also a great multi-tasking strategy to teach graphing. (via Ginger Snaps)

student self assessment example


Another self-assessment strategy is to build a tool similar to a traffic light. With this example from A Teacher’s Wonderland, she used the scale from 1-4, novice to expert with explanations on the back side. (via A Teacher’s Wonderland)

student self assessment example



5. Exit tickets and do nows

exit ticket example

Formative Assessment sounds scary and nebulous, but you’ve been doing exit tickets, do nows, and the entire list thus far already! You’re a rock star assessor—but you already knew that.

exit ticket exampleOne strategy is to create a template that students will routinely see on a daily basis. This exit ticket allows students to 1) self-assess their mastery, complete an “I can…” statement, and provide evidence of their learning through an example.

exit ticket template

exit ticket template

Another strategy is a spin on the normal exit ticket that asks for comprehension of a skill. In this case, you’d still be asking a question similar to the bottom picture, but students may answer it on their exit “ticket.” A clever way to save paper is to laminate the tickets and use as a white board.  (Via Inclusive Ed Wiki)

Looking to learn more?

Here are 27 tips on how to assess

how to assess student learning

Or check out our Pinterest board on Exit Tickets

exit ticket examples

Psst… Gradeable allows you to build in self-assessment survey questions in conjunction with exit tickets and do nows. It’s easy to start and allows for the functionality of including surveys, multiple choice questions, and short answer questions all on one exit ticket.

exit ticket online

Get started with Gradeable and start assessing like a rock star!



Re: Report Cards in Lunch

A school district in rural New York state has taken feedback to another level, in the cafeteria. At the K-12 school district, “27 parents received weekly emails describing what their children selected at the school cafeteria.” Wait, what? Yes, report cards on lunch. Bear with me, because these reports are actually helping students make healthier choices.

After these report cards started going out, students started buying fewer cookies and their parents were encouraged to talk nutrition with their children. This is a simple, effective example of digital portfolios and feedback at work. This district in New York state understands that letting people see their “performance” is the first step in getting them engaged. Just like adults keep track of their money to keep track of where their resources are going, this school is keeping track of their students’ lunch intake to drive healthier eating.

This archiving and tracking of what students are doing is important to Gradeable and our advocacy for feedback. As evident in the cookie purchase decline, there’s a lot to gain by keeping tabs on yourself. We advocated for this via exit tickets and formative assessments. Tracking the everyday stuff paints a black and white, numerical picture of what’s going on.

Now, let’s shift this mentality to the classroom. By keeping track of what students are doing, teachers get a better idea of where to apply the pressure. So let’s say we’re in an English lesson and verbs are milk, subjects are veggies, and adjectives are fruit. From your student “intake” tracking, you see that students are crushing fruit and veggies, but not getting enough milk. So, the next lesson isn’t going to be fruit salad with a side of veggies, right? You’re going to push milk shakes, yogurt, and maybe some cheese.

Imagine if you didn’t keep track of these things and gave students equal servings of everything because you assumed they consumed it equally… well, you’d completely miss the fact that your students were calcium-deficient!

I hope you’ve managed to keep up with my weird analogy here. My point is that there are huge gains from keeping tabs, if you can put in the initial effort. There’s a considerable change in workflow to keep track of what students are eating at lunch, but the payoff is huge. Think about it: isn’t your diet dictated much more by your daily intake than that special occasion dinner? You’d never try to describe your eating habits by what you ate on Thanksgiving, so why would you try to define students by what they get on those high-stakes tests?

Are you interested in doing this for your class but don’t know the best way to start? Doing it already but can’t deal with all the data entry? Well Gradeable may be your answer. Drop me a line (bon@gradeable.com) or check us out (invite code Resolution2014BC). We’re dedicated to making the grading process better for teachers.


Tom Brady Makes Formative Assessments Look Easy

Tom Brady makes formative assessments, do you?

Tom Brady makes formative assessments, do you?

A few weeks ago, Parul gave me a book called Driven by Data. It’s written by Paul Bambrick-Santoyo, the founder of Uncommon Schools, and is basically a playbook on how to use data to drive teaching. Again, some of you may already be hailing data and some of you may be curious, intimidated, or scared. For me, this is new and fairly obvious, so I’ll teach it to the middle.

Uncommon Schools is a charter management organization with schools in New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts. Uncommon Schools places a high priority on quantifying and analyzing data in the hopes that it will yield insights for better teaching.

Word bank

  • line of scrimmage – where the play starts
  • passing play – when the ball is thrown
  • receiver – offensive player to catches the ball
  • man coverage – each defender is responsible for covering one person
  • blitz – when extra defenders try to tackle the quarterback

On page 85 of the book, Bambrick-Santoyo explains formative assessments by comparing them to audibles in football. Babrizck Santoyo defines audibles as offensive “on-the-spot changes to the play based on what they read in the defense.” When Tom Brady steps up to the line of scrimmage, he is making quick checks on the other team’s coverage: Are they dropping defenders in anticipation of a passing play? Are they playing man coverage? Are more defenders lined up for a blitz?

Taking all these little things into account, Tom can override the existing plan and call an audible.  A less experienced quarterback would most likely go with the game plan discussed before the start of the game and wait until a timeout, half time, or to get off the field before making adjustments.

As the quarterback of the classroom, the teacher can make quick checks of what the students are doing and call their own audible—making adjustments when possible as the class is going on.

What are these checks, you ask? Well they can be anything from quizzes to thumbs up or thumbs down. If the chapter test is a summative assessment (that sums up learning), a quiz, exit ticket, or scanning the room for raised hands is a formative assessment (that forms the lesson).

Chances are, if you are reading a blog on educational technology, you are aware of these assessments. Though they sound simple, formative assessments, like anything else, requires planning to be effective. Like I said about exit tickets, come up with these assessments before the class starts and how you will make use of your responses. How will you challenge the students who can teach the lesson? How will you reteach to the students who didn’t understand? What about the middle of the pack? What’s the plan for making sure they get it without boring them?

Finally, here are some suggestions to make it exciting…

For those of you who watch the Pats game Sunday, you saw the Patriots dominate their half time formative assessments. Down 24-0 at halftime, Bill Belichick took the first half diagnosis and adjusted the game plan to win the game. Imagine if they didn’t take time to adjust? Our record would be 7-3 on the season and have to deal with how Peyton Manning is greater than Tom Brady. So thanks to formative assessments, we won a huge game in November.

Formative assessments are our game. Find out more at www.gradeable.com.

Exit Tickets: Let’s Get Started

So you're on board with exit tickets, what now?

So you’re on board with exit tickets, what now?

Kattie: Remember those times my students got 0/10 questions right?

Sheri: Yes, and I thought I taught it right…but they didn’t get it.

Kattie: I kept asking myself why didn’t they get it? maybe it’s not why…

Sheri: I think it’s more about knowing why NOW rather than months later.

So you’re on board with exit tickets. You’re excited. You’re going to find out what your students know at the end of each class. You’re going to hold them accountable for each lesson. It’s going to revolutionize the way you teach and reteach your class. It’s going to be awesome, right?  So let’s get started.

Determine your end game

What do you want to know from your students? Maybe you put them into differentiated groups for the first time and want to know how well it worked. Or maybe it’s more straight forward like, “what are the steps of FOIL?”  Whatever it is, figure out your essential question is and teach to the ticket:

For example, if you’re assessing students’ ability to describe a character’s motivation using evidence from a story, make sure you teach what motivation means, how to determine it, and how to support it with evidence.

— Education Week TEACHER

Decide what you want to know

You want to come up with a way to assess your students’ learning. If you’re stuck, then there are plenty of ideas on the web. Plenty. Some of them are called closure activities.


After you’ve got your question, you’ve got your students, and you’ve got 10 minutes left in class, it’s showtime. You can go for the “everyone take out a scrap piece of paper and do this problem on the board” or “write your answer on a post it note and stick it to the poster before you leave.”


Afterwards, you’re probably sitting at your desk with a pile of slips in front of you, unless you’ve gone digital. You can either go the “got it”/”don’t got it” route of sorting it into two piles, with the respective names. You can even get crazy with using more in-depth categories like (can teach it, medium-high, medium-low, doesn’t get it at all) and pair students off the next day depending on their understanding level, also known as differentiation groups.

Going digital

Here at Gradeable, we recommend digitizing your results. Just take that pile of answers and scan those babies in. With tools like Gradeable, you can keep student answers on file in a digital portfolio, grade them anywhere, and even have them auto-graded. The digital portfolio is huge: it gives you the ability to compare results within a classroom, across the grade, and even from year to year.

Let it be your guide

Of the many benefits of exit tickets, my favorite is that it immediately guides better teaching. I read a great example over the weekend in the book Driven by Data: teaching without data is like not being able to see the score in a tight basketball game. You don’t know whether you should drive hard to the basket or milk the clock. Exit tickets help you find out what students don’t know and focus on that. Or you find out that they mastered something and move on, or even reward them with something interesting or exciting. Using this “good data” is checking that scoreboard.

Instead of giving out star stickers everyday, why not let students know where they stand?  You’ll know exactly what to teach and get the satisfaction of meeting your students exactly where they are to drive better learning.

Here’s what an exit ticket could look like on Gradeable…

exit ticket online

Like what you see? Join us at www.gradeable.com to get started. 


Friday Bulletin Board: The Exit Ticket Edition

Exit tickets: Do you know what your students know?

Exit tickets: Do you know what your students know?

This week’s bulletin board is brought to you by exit ticket enthusiasm. I’ve scoured the web for the best posts on our favorite formative assessments. Most of these take you through the what, why, how, and when of exit tickets so I’ve highlighted the best parts of them.

Start with the exit ticket

Teach What’s on the Ticket
It seems simple: If you want students to show mastery on the assessment, you have to teach them how to do what’s on the assessment. For example, if you’re assessing students’ ability to describe a character’s motivation using evidence from a story, make sure you teach what motivation means, how to determine it, and how to support it with evidence.

Exit tickets, or “Did the kids learn anything today?”


How did working in small groups help you learn and understand the vocabulary words?

Answers (with comments):

If I am working with friends, I don’t accomplish much; however, if I am working with non-friends I accomplish the work.

Is it really working together if you do the work and everyone copies from you?  (No, but the lazy kids all wrote that they liked working in a group.)

I don’t think this was helpful.  I felt that we got off task too easily, and one person would just shout out the answer before we got to do it first.  (Interesting, the rest of his group liked the competitiveness of yelling out the answer first.)

It helped me hear how other people think of the words and how they remember the words.  (Excellent – the sharing of mnemonic devices.)

Next time:

What did I learn?  The next time, I am going to assign groups.

Creative exit tickets

My favorite:

4. Postcards – Have students write a post card to an absent student explaining the key ideas presented  in the day’s lesson.

Exit tickets for accountability

They like the routine. They know exactly what to do. They know at the end of the day they’re going to be held accountable. It’s a really quick way for me to assess if students have learned the concept of the day.
—Abby Randall, science teacher


And finally, we have this week’s feel good link. One set of parents made their kids’ dinosaurs come to life for every day one November. They said that “in an age of iPads and Netflix, we don’t want our kids to lose their sense of wonder and imagination.”

Have a great weekend, everyone! I hope it’s wonderful and imaginative!


Exit Tickets: What They Are and Why You Should Use Them

teaching strategies exit tickets

Did your students fill out their exit tickets today?

One of the biggest issues teachers have is understanding if their student’s get it or not. And one of the best ways to assess this is with a simple quiz, or exit tickets, at the end of each class. Before the bell rings at the end of class, students answer a prompt that can range from a specific question on the lesson (“Give an example of a simile.”) to simply asking what they didn’t understand (“What was the hardest part of the lesson?”). As you sort through these tickets, putting tickets into “got it” and “don’t got it” piles, you can target your lesson plan for the next class.

These end-of-class-prompts are called exit tickets, and they drive formative assessment. Exit tickets are a quick, low-risk, non-threatening way to check the learning pulse of your students at the end of each class. They are slips of paper, index cards, Post-Its, or maybe something cool I don’t even know about.

The next day in class, the exit-ticket-wielding teacher knows exactly what he/she needs to re-teach and to which students. With checkpoints like exit tickets, you are no longer broadcasting a lesson and relying on head-nods or glazed-over expressions to gauge whether or not what you said just stuck. You have actual, written or otherwise, trackable responses to your check-in questions.

By giving students a voice at the end of each lesson that drives how you teach the next day, teaching becomes an iterative, directed, more efficient process. If you know half your students don’t understand multiplying fractions the first day you teach it, then you can adjust for the next day before moving on. Instead of waiting until the chapter test to realize the gaps in understanding, exit tickets give you an idea of who needs extra attention now.

In addition to collecting a trove of actionable data, everyday exit tickets create routine and accountability for both teachers and students. As a student, knowing that I’d be asked a question at the end of class would motivate me to pay attention. And for educators, what’s more motivating than seeing your results in real-time? It becomes about learning just as much as it is about teaching.

Sometimes, I feel like I sound like a broken record: feedback, teachers not technology, more feedback, accurate assessments, feedback saved a cat from a burning building… But the world of feedback is vast. And we at Gradeable are taking it on in an innovative way from the ground level. We’ll be spending a little time on exit tickets over the next few weeks because it’s one of the great things that Gradeable facilitates. By digitizing exit tickets, students’ progress can be tracked in real-time, graded anywhere, analyzed for trends, and kept in a digital portfolio.

The real beauty of exit tickets is that they don’t have to be another thing to grade. They aren’t meant to be complex. Check out this blogger who put up a poster on the back of her door. Her students write their responses on Post-It notes and stick them on the poster before they leave for the day. They’re almost painless and we’ll have plenty of inspirations in our follow-up post.

Here’s what an exit ticket looks like on Gradeable…

exit ticket online

Like what you see? Get started at www.gradeable.com.