Tuesday / June 18

How the Lack of Quality Formative Assessment Endangers Our Children

This blog is the third in a three-part series by Bob Sornson. Click to read Part 1: What Digital Game Designers Know About Assessment and Instructional Design and Part 2: Best Practices Not Encouraged by Our Cover-Test-Sort Instructional System.

Formative assessment is the gathering of information to help you plan what comes next. If you are driving a car, hopefully you are using formative assessment every moment you drive. You watch the road for traffic. You respond to changing conditions, or the behavior of other drivers. You adjust direction and speed. If for some ridiculous reason you shift your attention to read or answer a text, your formative assessment is delayed, your driving is compromised, and you might easily cause an accident.

Digital game designers do not use end of unit assessments and they don’t give grades. There is no Bell Curve. Instead, formative assessment is embedded into every moment of the game. The level of difficulty is increased only when the student is ready for the challenge, as demonstrated by her level of play. Every moment of play is used as part of the formative assessment process to determine whether to present new challenges or take the player to the next level.

Typical classroom instruction in the modern school is a contrast to this competency based approach to learning. Typical instruction includes standardized content expectations for all students within a grade, a curriculum delivery plan with rigid pacing guides which emphasizes what must be “covered”, grades which sort good and poor students, and moving forward in the curriculum whether students have deep understanding or the ability to use skills which were previously “covered”.

The end result of standardized one-size-fits-all instruction is a catastrophe for vulnerable children who are less able to keep up with the pace of instruction.

  • By the beginning of fourth grade only 34% of American children are at proficient reading levels (National Assessment of Educational Progress, 2013)
  • Only 20% of fourth grade children who are eligible for free or reduced lunch are at proficient reading levels  (National Assessment of Educational Progress, 2013)
  • Among 12th grade students (remember that a significant group of students has already dropped out by this point), 26 percent score at or above proficient levels in math, and 38 percent are proficient or better in reading (National Assessment of Educational Progress, 2013)
  • Among African American twelfth grade students tested, 7 percent are proficient or better in math and 16 percent are proficient or better in reading (National Assessment of Educational Progress, 2013)

The difference between the learning systems designed by gamers and standard school instruction is simple. The design model for games includes on-going formative assessment. The goals are clear. The games assesses the ability of the learner, adjusts the level of difficulty to meet the readiness of the learner, gives each learner all the time needed to develop essential knowledge and skill, continues to assess the learner’s readiness for moving along to more advanced skills, encourages risk-taking, avoids failure messages (you are no good at this game), and rewards effort.


Fortunately for us all, some well-established learning systems clearly understand the importance of formative assessment and competency based learning. Airplane pilot training gives students all the time they need to pass ground school, and all the time needed to develop each essential skill for each level of aircraft. There are no acceptable “C” grades for landing a plane. Students continue to learn essential skills until they are completely proficient. No matter how long it takes, students work until the skills are solid.

Most vocational trades use a similar learning system design. To become an electrician, you must learn and understand the fundamentals, then serve as an apprentice for years. Only after you have demonstrated your ability to understand and apply all essential skills do you earn your certificate as a master electrician.

Technical degrees and certificates are based on the same competency based model of learning. To earn one of many Microsoft skill certificates you must learn and demonstrate every skill in the sequence of skills leading to competency. The Khan Academy uses the same model for instructional design. Students may choose to use video lessons, written lessons, practice activities, or tutorials, but to move forward in the program you must first establish competency.

This competency based learning model is familiar to every parent who has ever taught a child to drive a car, catch a ball, or learn to read. When driving with your teenager, you pick a quiet time of day, a scarcely used road, turn off the radio, and carefully practice basic skills before moving on to more challenging driving situations. While throwing and catching with a five year old, parents carefully observe the child so that every throw is delivered in a way that allows the kid a chance to be successful. Formative assessment is ongoing, continuous, leading to immediate response on your part to help your child be successful.


Sometimes schools pretend that quarterly, end of unit, or annual testing is quality formative assessment.  But really it is not. It is a recipe for disaster. To help students keep on the pathway to success, to avoid frustration and disengagement, and ensure that students have all the time needed to acquire essential knowledge and skills, we must learn to be attentive to their interests, readiness and progress on an on-going basis. Game designers get it. Why don’t educators?

Written by

Bob Sornson is an award-winning author and presenter, calling for programs and practices which support competency based learning and early learning success. He works internationally with school districts, universities, and parent organizations. His many books include Over-Tested and Under-Prepared: Using Competency-Based Learning to Transform Our Schools (Routledge), Fanatically Formative (Corwin Press), and Stand in My Shoes: Kids Learning about Empathy (Love and Logic Press). Contact

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