As part of our Client Success series, this is the second of a two-part guide to unpacking and prioritizing standards like a pro. 

In our last article, we shared our tips for unpacking standards, including the process of determining big ideas and writing essential questions. This week we tackle the tricky question: How do you fit everything in?

Regardless of which set of standards you use in your classroom, the sheer volume of material can become daunting. And we’ve all heard the pitfalls of mile-wide-and-inch-deep instruction, which neither saves time nor impacts learning in a meaningful way.

Identifying priority or “power” standards is a process you can use to prioritize the content and skills you’ll need to address with your students. But this process is not about deciding what can be eliminated; rather, it’s designed to help you manage instructional time and determine a clear path for student learning. This prioritization process also brings us full circle back to the need for Big Ideas.

Let’s take a look at the two types of standards we’ll be working with: priority and supporting.

Priority standards are a carefully selected subset of the larger list of standards to be covered in a specific grade level or course that students must know and be able to demonstrate understanding of by the end of the grade-level or course in order to be prepared for the next grade-level or course.
Supporting standards are those standards that support, connect to, or enhance the priority standards. They are taught within the context of the priority standards, but do not receive the same degree of emphasis.

How to Identify Power Standards

Just as you followed a process to unpack standards, you should follow one when selecting priority or power standards. It’s best to prioritize collaboratively to ensure priority standards are identified across the team, so students move onto the next grade-level/course with consistent understanding of content.

Important note: Again, it is critical to remember that prioritizing standards has nothing to do with elimination; it has everything to do with degree of focus placed on standards.

When reviewing each standard you are targeting for instruction, consider the criteria and questions below. If the answers are “yes” for a particular standard, it should be labeled a priority/power standard.

Does this standard provide students with knowledge that will benefit them beyond the present?
Will proficiency of this standard help my students gain skills needed in the next grade-level/course or even in real-life situations?

Does this standard provide students with knowledge and/or skills that benefit them in other learning situations within the current grade level or course?
Does it have cross-curricular benefit?

Does this standard provide students with knowledge and/or skills that are prerequisite concepts and skills needed to be successful in the next grade-level/course?

Does this standard provide students with knowledge and/or skills that they are most likely to encounter on local, state, and/or national assessments?

Standards you have not identified as priority/power standards may be supporting standards. These standards often scaffold under a priority standard, much as a sub-standard (content or skill) would serve as a stepping stone to the overarching standard.

Start Prioritizing with “I Can” Statements

Once you have identified your priority standards and determined the supporting standards for each, you can begin designing your assessment and instruction. Also, you should now be more prepared to communicate clear learning objectives or targets to your students.

Many schools and districts use “I can” statements to clearly communicate learning objectives developed from priority standards, written in student-friendly language. When used consistently, “I can” statements have a profound effect on the learning of students, because students understand why they are learning the material.

“I can” statements help students:

  • take a more active role in their learning
  • become more reflective of their own work
  • feel more responsible for their learning

Let’s go through this exercise with the standard we unpacked in the last article.

Trace and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, distinguishing claims that are supported by reasons and evidence from claims that are not.

Let’s say we identified it as a priority standard based on the criteria above, and now we can create “I can” statements to more specifically convey the knowledge and skills tied to this standard.

Priority Standard I Can Statement
Trace and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, distinguishing claims that are supported by reasons and evidence from claims that are not.
  • I can define argument, claim, and evidence.
  • I can distinguish between supported and unsupported claims.
  • I can trace an argument in a text.

Priority standard identified? Check! Standard clearly communicated to students? Check! You now have a road map for instructional change! You can identify clear targets and enduring understanding, as well as effectively communicate the learning outcomes to students. It’s time to start planning lessons and gathering resources to make a difference in your classroom!

For MasteryConnect Educators

To help you get started with this work in MasteryConnect, we’ve pulled together some resources that will provide detailed instruction on how to add your unpacked standards and “I can” statements into your curriculum maps and trackers and how to flag priority standards.

The resources we’ve provided are for both curriculum maps and trackers. However, if you’re working with a collaborative school or district team, we highly suggest doing this work in curriculum maps, then creating your trackers from the maps.

Help Center Articles
Add Sub-Standards to a Curriculum Map
View and Customize Standards in a Curriculum Map
Set a Power Standards in a Curriculum Map
Add Sub-Standard to a Tracker
Customize or Reword Standards
Set a Power Standard in a Tracker

       Web Professional Development

Mindful Introduction Module: Tracker Basics

For on-site professional development on using curriculum maps for unpacking standards, contact your Client Success Manager. And be sure to check back for the next article in our Client Success Series!

MasteryConnect has Over 1 Million Standards!

Looking for solutions that support state or Common Core standards? Check out our FREE apps for educators or take a tour of the full MasteryConnect platform for school and district-level features.


As part of our Client Success series, this is the first of a two-part guide to unpacking and prioritizing standards like a pro. 

Have you ever looked at a standard—local, state, or national—and wondered, “What is this? And how am I going to teach it?” If so, you’re not alone!

In the ever-changing world of which standards are we using this year?!, the work of learning and implementing new standards must often happen quickly. Implementing standards effectively requires teachers to dive deep into the standards to fully understand expectations and make them clear to students.

Why “Unpack” Standards?

Because standards are sometimes written as overarching—and often complex—statements that can be interpreted in different ways, it’s important that teachers share a common understanding about the goals and targets of a standard. (You’ve probably been in a PLC conversation and thought, “I had no idea that’s what that standard meant!” or “Whoa, we’re reading the same book, but we’re not on the same page.”)

“Unpacking” is a technique teachers can use to make sense of standards, and then create focused learning targets to make them actionable. This process, also called “deconstructing” or “unwrapping” standards, fosters a collaborative dialogue that supports growth and effectiveness.

Once you have unpacked standards to identify what students should know and be able to do, you can do three important things:

  • Craft your vision of mastery for specific standards.
  • Align lesson plans and accompanying resources to that vision.
  • As you teach and report progress, create student-friendly learning objectives to better communicate required skills to students and community stakeholders.

So what does unpacking look like? Read on as we break down the unpacking process and go through a couple examples to help get you started.

The Unpacking Process

There are four key steps to unpacking standards:


Identify what students need to know and what they need to do. We like to highlight nouns (content) in blue and verbs (skills) in green.


Next, you’ll determine which concepts are content/knowledge targets, reasoning/cognitive targets, skill/performance targets, and product targets.


The next step is to list the conceptual understandings that students discover during the learning process (the ah-ha! moments).


To focus and guide classroom instruction and assessment, write open-ended questions to help stimulate student interest and make new connections.

Think of this unpacking process as a journey with a destination in mind. The journey will include packing and preparation, travel arrangements, perhaps some new experiences, and ultimately an endpoint (student learning), which may very well begin a new journey.

An Unpacking Example

With the journey theme in mind, let’s use the analogy of planning a destination trip to help illustrate the process (it’s summertime, after all!). We’ll start with the learning target and break it down with Steps 1 and 2.


Organize and plan for a trip to the beach.

What should I know?

  • Lodging availability
  • Location of area restaurants
  • Day/night temperature at location

What should I be able to do?

  • Swim
  • Locate the surf shop
  • Apply sunscreen evenly

What should I understand?

  • Recognize changes in tide
  • Assess surroundings for safety
  • Devise a plan if stranded at sea on catamaran

This breakdown of the familiar process of planning a trip makes sense: It provides clearly outlined steps and a better vision of the target after unpacking the original standard.

Example 2: Unpacking a Complex Standard

Now let’s take a closer look at examples of Steps 1 through 4 with a more complex, real-world standard. For this demonstration, we’ll use a sixth grade English Language Arts national/state standard.


We’ll start by highlighting the nouns (concepts) in green and the verbs (skills) in blue, just like we did in the destination trip example.


Trace and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, distinguishing claims that are supported by reasons and evidence from claims that are not.


Next, we’ll identify the types of targets the standard represents. You may benefit by using a graphic organizer like the one below.

Knowledge Targets Reasoning Targets
Define argument

Define claim

Define evidence

Evaluate an argument

Distinguish between supported and unsupported claims

Skill/Performance Targets Product Targets
Trace an argument in a text Not applicable for this standard

Identifying specific targets within a standard provides clear direction for instructional planning. It helps to not only focus on important content students should know, but also what skills they should develop. This is a critical balance that can easily get a little lopsided if there’s too much on content and not enough the skills.


You’re halfway there! Determining Big Ideas is next, and it’s one of the most important parts of the learning process. This is where we help students to make connections and attach relevance to new information.

We want student thinking to extend beyond fact retention, because, let’s face it, facts alone aren’t going to get you where you need to go unless you’re a contestant on Jeopardy!

Below are some examples of Big Ideas for our standard:

  • Presenting an argument with evidence is more persuasive than sharing an opinion.
  • Unsupported claims can lead to an invalid argument.
  • Identifying a claim supported with evidence is a skill applicable to all areas of life.

These Big Ideas go beyond one standard, unit of study, or even a class. They are the key learnings that move with students to new targets, new applications, and new connections.


In our opinion, the real fun begins in Step 4. As teachers, our favorite moments were those that allowed us to watch a student learn, grow in understanding, or have an ah-ha! Moment. Essential Questions can get you there every time!

These questions are open-ended opportunities to stimulate interest, stretch thinking, make connections that haven’t been made before, and much more. They can be used at the beginning of the instruction on a learning target or during instruction to advance the thinking process.

Examples of Essential Questions for our standard include:

  • Why is evidence important?
  • Why do we need to be able to recognize an argument that has support versus one that does not?
  • When do we use argumentation in daily life?

One important point to remember when using Essential Questions is to keep them truly open-ended. Craft questions to have more than one possible response or to generate discussion when different or conflicting ideas are presented. As teachers, our role in this process is to facilitate thinking and discussion, not to validate. Be wary of responding with, “I agree with you” or “That’s correct”; other students may not speak up if their thinking is different than the answer you’ve identified as “right”.

Get Unpacking!

Congrats! You’ve now gone through the unpacking process. By unpacking this standard, you now have a clear path forward. This process will enable you to plan effectively and ultimately save you time to focus on your students. Not only will you have a deeper understanding of the standards you teach, but your students will be more engaged in their learning. Sounds like a win-win for everyone!

Be sure to check back in a few weeks for Part 2 of Unpacking Standards – Moving from Content Standards to Student-Friendly Learning Targets. We’ll explore priority standards and student-friendly “I Can” statements.

MasteryConnect has Every Standard for Every State!

Looking for solutions that support state or Common Core standards? Check out our FREE apps for educators or take a tour of the full MasteryConnect platform for school and district-level features.

Formative Assessment Guide

You may have noticed that we are BIG fans of formative assessment around here. And as we meet with educators around the country, we continually find ourselves in (very) good company.

More and more teachers are using formative assessment in their classrooms everyday to answer important questions about student growth:

  • What do my students know?
  • What do they still need to learn?
  • How should I adapt my instruction?

Unlike it’s more traditional cousin, summative assessment, the formative process embeds checks for understanding into the learning cycle, so teachers can provide personalized learning opportunities based on students’ unique needs. It also helps students track their progress and take greater ownership of their learning. Both super sweet wins in our book.

Over the past few months, we’ve shared a series of articles on the ins and outs of formative assessment and strategies to put it to integrate it into your instruction. But we thought it’d be nice to have all that formative know-how in one handy, comprehensive guide.

Now you can become the hot-footed, whiz-bang, undisputed champion of formative assessment by downloading The Definitive K-12 Guide to Formative Assessment, a free 20-page resource designed specifically for K-12 teachers and administrators. 

What’s inside?

  • An overview of formative assessment and its benefits for students and teachers
  • The difference between formative and summative assessment
  • The three must-haves for meaningful formative assessments
  • Ideas to start using in your own classroom

Whether you’re new to formative assessment or you’re already a diehard believer, there’s something for you in this guide. 

Download now!  

Looking for a formative assessment solution? MasteryConnect can help you collect more formative data more frequently. View our online demo to see how we may be able to help in your school or district.

Best Practices for Long Term Planning

This week we kick off a special series of articles written by our Client Success Managers. They’ll be sharing insights and best practices designed to help you make the most of your summer months and plan for the upcoming year.

Another school year in the books! Your friends are probably already sending the standard “Must be nice…Where are you planning to vacation?” messages. Summers off?! (As a former educator, I’m laughing with you.) Let’s be real: You’ve already planned the staycation in your classroom so you can begin next school year in a less Tasmanian-devil like state.

So when we think of the lists and lists of things to get done in the summer, you may be wondering why I’d suggest beginning with long term plan creation. But it makes sense.

Imagine the layers of the Earth; the long-term plan is like the crust. It is the outermost layer of your teaching plan and a necessary starting point before drilling any deeper. Creating a long term plan (LTP) will help you avoid becoming overwhelmed in the frenzy that is back to school season. It’ll also help you focus on every educator’s primary goal: student learning. And we all know that doesn’t happen without a specific, charted course of action.

Read on for tips I learned by going through the LTP process myself.

Answer a Few Key Questions

Before you dive right into the writing your LTP, take the time to answer the questions that’ll help you in the process.

What do you want your students to learn?
Use your standards to answer this! Your district may also provide a Scope & Sequence or Pacing Guide you can use as guidance.

Which standards are “power” or “priority” standards?
When working with standards, you may need to prioritize a little. Best place to start is with power standards.

How will you know if students have learned?
Identify what you’ll accept as evidence of learning or mastery. You may use released interim or end-of-level assessments to review standards-aligned questions or tasks. This helps to identify how your school district or state expects students to demonstrate proficiency and ensures that the level of rigor in your expectation is consistent.

If this all sounds a little daunting, hang in there! You don’t have to go it alone. This is a great opportunity to collaborate with your colleagues, whether you do it informally or in your PLCs / teacher teams. Teaming up will help you create a great comprehensive plan while lightening the load.

Now let’s get into the details of crafting your LTP.

What a Long Term Plan Is and Isn’t

A long term plan is a document or tool that details logical and sequenced standards-aligned learning goals for your course, grouping them into cohesive units that build upon one another. More simply put, your LTP is an instructional plan crafted to help you meet your learning goals (which you’ve outlined by answering the questions above).

An LTP is not your textbook’s table of contents, though I’ll personally admit that I’ve used that to drive my own instruction in the past. Major oops and missed opportunity. I learned (and you may have, too) that it’s impossible to cram an entire textbook’s worth of content into a single school year, and there’s often a lot of unnecessary “fluff” between those pages.

How LTPs Help Educators

When I based my plan on a textbook, I didn’t know WHY I was teaching the prescribed content; I essentially allowed it to determine what I should teach and when I should teach it. When I began to use my course standards to drive my long-term planning and leveraged my textbook as a supporting resource, I found that I had more time than I thought I would.

I was then able to approach each instructional day with a clear purpose. That purpose was for my students to demonstrate learning of a very clear set of skills, as outlined by the standards that I prioritized. Building an LTP that you’re invested in is exciting. Really. It helped me enter the school year with a PLAN that I was invested in. Additionally, it helped me to get to know the standards that I am accountable to teach, and it was the first step to exercising my creative teaching abilities.

A Long Term Plan Example

My first LTP was built in a Word document. Here’s an example from a 5th grade Science class.



In this particular unit, I grouped fifth grade science standards on Physical and Chemical Change. Notice that this precedes types and forms of energy and eventually builds to energy flow and the advanced concepts of photosynthesis.

Developing your LTP involves more than grouping standards into a logical sequence; it involves looking at each standard to determine specific and measurable learning goals. Though there are only two standards in this particular unit, there are eight learning objectives. (Psst! Stay tuned for an upcoming article on deriving learning goals from standards.)

The Need for Flexibility

Creating the beginnings of this extensive plan in Microsoft Word is absolutely doable, but it has its limitations. As I moved through the school year, I found the Word doc inflexible. Oftentimes, I would assume a skill would take a certain amount of time to teach; my predictions weren’t always accurate.

An LTP is not fixed; it’s a living document. This means it should be constantly informed and manipulated as you gauge student understanding. You should feel empowered to adjust pace to meet your student’s needs.

Because I needed more flexibility, I built my LTPs in Google Sheets the following year. You can also use an Excel sheet for this. This still requires a significant amount of copy/paste and cut commands to manipulate standards into logical units of learning.

Creating an LTP in MasteryConnect

If you’re writing an LTP, I’d like to introduce you to your new best friend: Curriculum Mapping from MasteryConnect. The Curriculum Map feature is IDEAL for crafting your LTP. It allows you to pre-populate your state specific standards and easily organize them into a unit structure, complete with notes, resources, and aligned assessments.

Below, you’ll find an example of my 5th Grade Science Curriculum Map in MasteryConnect after having organized it into logical and sequential units. Prior to this organization, the map exists as a list of standards based on the core I chose to align it to. Note that this is a collapsed view: I have the option to expand any unit to view embedded standards, learning objectives, and resources.


You can see an example of my expanded unit on Physical and Chemical change below.


The Curriculum Map feature in MasteryConnect revolutionized my LTP. And it will help you knock out an awesome plan while saving time in the process.

Create Your Long Term Plan

Now is time for you to start crafting your LTP. To help you get started, I’ve rounded up some valuable resources that will provide you with detailed instruction on how to build your LTP through the MasteryConnect Curriculum Map feature.

Help Center

Video Tutorial: Create a Curriculum Map

Video Tutorial: Organize a Curriculum Map

Article: View/Customize Standards in a Curriculum Map

Article: Set Power Standards in a Curriculum Map

Web PD

Mindful Intermediate Module: Creating Curriculum Maps

For on-site professional development on using Curriculum Maps for long term planning, contact your Customer Success Manager. And be sure to check back for upcoming articles in our Client Success Series. We’ll be covering topics like unpacking standards, analyzing student data, teaching for mastery, and more!

See You at MasteryCon!

This year, tell ’em the teachers are going to camp! Join us for three days of summer camp awesomeness at the ultimate K-12 event for formative assessment and mastery learning. Join us July 27-29 in beautiful Park City, Utah. Get tickets.






Samantha is a 5th grade teacher in Carrollton, Kentucky. A mastery learning guru and exit ticket ninja, she’s committed to creating better writers in her classroom—and changing her hair color like the weather.


Reading. Math. Social Studies. Language Arts. It’s all in a day’s work. And that doesn’t include timely restroom breaks, extracurricular classes, lunch, and recess! How do teachers fit it all in? Like a generous number of my colleagues, I have become quite creative in attempts to cover state-recognized content standards and fill in the gaps with the everyday lessons that ensure students will be successful later in life.

My most recent classroom triumph involves using exit tickets to assess student learning. I know, I know… you’re no newbie to formative assessment. But I’ve found that using exit tickets in new ways has helped as I integrate writing with reading, language arts, and social studies each day. These integrated formatives are giving me the biggest bang for my buck–and they actually work!

Read on to learn about five creative integrated exit tickets you may not have tried in your classroom…yet!

#1 Short-Answer Question

For the teacher that struggles to find time to integrate writing with other content areas, this exit ticket is a must! At the completion of your lesson, ask students to respond to a short-answer question.

My students practice the RAP (Restate – Answer – Prove) method for writing responses. This criterion allows for a 3-point scoring scale: three points demonstrates mastery of the content, two points demonstrates near mastery, and one point demonstrates the need for remediation.

Determining need for specific students is no longer a challenge thanks to this three-point format. While analyzing student responses, I can sort students into three categories: those who need additional restate instruction, those who need additional content instruction, and students who need additional practice finding/using evidence and proof.

#2 Key Terms

During my 11 years of personal observation, I’ve found vocabulary knowledge is a common barrier for today’s elementary learner. To alleviate the deficits this causes, I sometimes ask my students to complete a key terms exit ticket–and it’s one of my favorites.

I’ve put a couple different spins on the key terms exit ticket. One is a fill-in-the-blank format, for which students fill in the missing term in a sentence or short paragraph. This strategy allows students to use the term(s) in context, which helps develop a deeper understanding.

Another version of the key terms exit ticket involves explaining what the key term means, and then providing an explanation as to how the student knows the definition is correct. We do this by explaining the prefix and/or ending used in the word, and using this understanding to develop a working definition for the new term.

#3 Fist-to-Five

While I do not take credit for developing the traditional “fist-to-five” self-assessment tool, I do want to share how I have adapted it to assess student mastery of learning standards. Conventionally, the fist-to-five self-assessment is used to get immediate feedback concerning lesson pacing. The fist means no additional time is needed to complete the task, while five fingers up means at least five more minutes is needed to complete the task.

I have adapted this strategy to assess content mastery on paper. I pose a question about the learning target, and the students have to rate themselves on a fist-to-five scale. Once they have given themselves a numerical rating, they must support their thinking with an explanation as to why. This explanation provides great insight into how much the students know about the learning target and how much support they may need moving forward.

In addition to this, I have found that students are very honest when assessing their own knowledge. It’s always interesting to me to delve into their minds for a brief moment and learn about them as scholars.

#4 Venn Diagram

Following the lesson, ask students to compare their new knowledge with previous learning using a venn diagram. For best results, assign a specific topic for students to compare and contrast to. This will allow you to easily reward points for appropriate likes and differences.

The expectation in my classroom is two differences on each side, and two similarities; this six-point scale makes scoring and analysis easy to accomplish.

#5 Summary

Another popular exit ticket in my fifth-grade classroom is the summary. Upon completion of the lesson, generally a reading or social studies lesson, I ask students to summarize their new learning from the day.

The format we use for a summary exit ticket includes four components: a main idea statement, two details/pieces of evidence, and a conclusion statement. The writing integration in this exit ticket provides great opportunity for student growth.

It’s my hope that this article has provided you with some new ideas for using exit tickets to get the most out of the time you have with your students. Because we all know, no matter where you try to pull it from, there are only so many hours in the day. To make the biggest impact with the minutes you do have, the formative strategies I’ve mentioned will help you assess students for lesson knowledge while also growing writers in your classroom.

Want to be a guest blogger? 

We love sharing stories, tips of the trade, real-world advice, and more from educators like you. If you’d like to be featured on the MasteryConnect blog, let us know! Send an email with your article idea to blog@masteryconnect.com.

Data-Driven INstruction

We live in a data-driven world. Everything is determined by data from from the Facebook posts we see to the marketing emails that pile up in our inbox. Somewhere, on a distant computer system, algorithms are run. Numbers are crunched.

But for educators, data is very personal. It’s a representation of the hard work they do day in and day out. It’s a representation of a child’s education.

That’s why education has a complicated relationship with data: it can be used to distill teaching and learning down to a set of inaccurate numerical values. But data-driven instruction is gaining a foothold in classrooms and schools around the country, showing that data should be about more than high-stakes testing and year-end results. The power of data should be leveraged to make ongoing, informed decisions to adjust instruction to better fuel student growth. It should be used while learning happens, not after the student has moved on.

This week, we share a few tips how to start using the principles of data-driven instruction in your classroom.

What is Data-Driven Instruction?

Data-driven instruction helps educators make informed instructional decisions, using information about student learning, to improve learning outcomes.

Although there are several variations on the specific elements of data-driven instruction, they all essentially include the following three things: assessment, analysis, action.

First, you must assess your students to determine their current levels of understanding. Then you must analyze the assessment data to identify learning gaps and self-evaluate instruction. The final step is acting on that information by adjusting instruction appropriately.

Some schools and districts have prescribed systems in place to help teachers track data at a student, class, grade, or school-level. However, many teachers craft their own strategy to make data-driven instruction work in their own classrooms. Regardless if it’s a district-wide or one-classroom initiative, taking the time to formalize your data-driven instruction strategy will lead to a more manageable process and greater success.

Start Building Your Data Strategy

This may sound intimidating at first, especially if you are new(ish) to data-driven instruction. But it doesn’t need to be.

Data isn’t some large, nebulous concept; the reality is that you already use data in your classroom everyday. You probably have mounds of info from student assignments, interactions with students, and more. Defining your strategy is simply taking a more systematic look at data in order to inform your instruction at a deeper level.

Audit How You’re Currently Using Data

Auditing how you already use data will highlight what’s working, what could be improved, and what’s missing.

  • What are you currently tracking?
  • Are you using formative assessment regularly?
  • How are you using data from summative assessments?
  • How are you recording data?
  • Which tools do you use to store/track data over time?
  • What are you required to report on by your school or district?
  • When students self-report their level of understanding (using “thumbs up/thumbs down” or “fist to fives”, for example), how do you plan your next steps?
  • What do you wish you knew about your students’ learning?
  • How do you use data to plan for the next moment, the next day, or for the following year?

Identify All Sources of Available Data

Next, consider other sources of data that may be available to you and which ones you’d like to add to your strategy. Analyzing data from multiple sources helps you create a more holistic view of a student’s learning, which will assist you in making more informed instructional decisions that influence growth.

  • Classroom formative assessments (quick checks, exit tickets, and other low-stakes activities)
  • Graded assignments (chapter-end tests, performances, essays, etc.)
  • Homework
  • Your own observations
  • Self-reporting from students
  • Collaborations with colleagues
  • Benchmark and year-end tests

Make a Plan

Take the information you gathered during your audit (along with the info on additional data sources) to use as a framework for building your personal data strategy. Each answer will help you craft part of your plan.

If you’re brand new to data-driven instruction, or you’re still working to fine-tune your strategy, it’s best to keep it simple. Start by thinking small, perhaps by starting with one class, one unit or lesson, or one month at a time. Starting small will help perfect your strategy before launching it at a grand scale.

  1. Which standards would I like to assess?
  2. How will I track this data over time?
  3. What resources or tools are available to me?
  4. How can my administrators support my efforts?
  5. When will I make time to analyze the data?
  6. What are my colleagues doing?
  7. How will I use this data to collaborate?
  8. How will I communicate about data with students? Parents?
  9. What would “success” look like?

Once you’ve answered these questions, you’ll have a more concrete idea on how to best approach your personal data strategy. Maybe you’d like to start by using daily exit or entrance tickets to plan the day’s lesson, and then track the day-to-day growth. Or you’d like to focus on a few concepts or standards that your students are struggling with, and then gauge how many students have moved from near-mastery to mastery. However you decide to do it, you’ll soon see that data can empower you to help more students do better.

Hear How One Educator Did It!
We recently sat down with a NYC teacher to hear how staff at her school leveraged the power of data to move from “remediation” to the top-10 list for most improved math scores in city. Listen to the full webinar to hear their story.

MasteryConnect helps over 2.5 million educators worldwide with formative assessment, data-driven instruction, standards-based learning, and collaboration. Get more information about how we can help drive student outcomes in your class, school, or district.

3 Must Haves

How to Make Formative Assessment Work in Your Classroom

If you’re anything like us, you’re a (really, really) big fan of formative assessment. You know that embedding it regularly into your K-12 classroom instruction unlocks in-the-moment insights into what your students know and don’t know, so you can make the best instructional decisions possible.

But in order for a formative assessment strategy to drive student outcomes, it has to be thoughtfully designed to give you the data you need to determine the next steps.

This week, we share our list of the three can’t-skips, gotta-dos, must-haves for meaningful formative assessment.

#1 Proper Alignment
Formative assessment only works when you measure what you intend to measure. Correct alignment ensures continuity of instruction, instructional materials, and assessment. It also sends clear messages to students about what they know, what they need to know, and how to close that gap.

In order to align your assessments to standards, you first have to be familiar with them—which can be tricky for educators, especially those who teach elective courses. (Trust us, we know. We spent 5+ years gathering ‘em all together.)

Many informational resources exist to help you dial in on the specific standards for your subject and grade level. Check with your district for standards materials, collaborate in your PLC, or download apps specifically designed for educators (like the MasteryConnect State Apps and Resource Pins.)

Once you have an assessment ready, review it for proper alignment to ensure that it will, in fact, inform both teaching and learning in your classroom. Below are a few questions to help you get started.

Questions to Ask About Assessment Alignment

  • Which standard(s) do I want to assess?
  • Does the assessment directly align to these standards?
  • Does it measure the concepts and skills associated with the standards?
  • Is it grade-level and/or developmentally appropriate?
  • Do the questions have the right level of readability?
  • Does it include appropriate vocabulary for my students?
  • Is it free of cultural bias?
  • Will the question provide the insight I need to identify levels of understanding?

Now, you may think that we are only covering alignment for formal formative assessments, like multiple-choice or papers. Au contraire. The spectrum of formative assessment is wide, including both formal and informal assessment and is effective for all subjects and grade levels.

As an educator, you may use your own observations of student performance. This works well for activities like musical numbers, art pieces, or group discussions. Or a formative assessment could be as simple as students self-reporting their confidence in understanding the day’s lesson, like “Fists to Fives” or “Thumbs Up / Thumbs Down”. (Check out our post from a few weeks back for other formative assessment ideas.)

Regardless of how you choose to assess your students (and how you gather data about that assessment), proper alignment is the first step in making sure that formative assessment is working in your classroom.

#2 In-the-Moment Feedback
Studies have repeatedly shown that the sooner a student receives feedback, the more likely it is to have a positive impact on student learning. Summative assessments, typically administered at the end of an instructional period, often don’t communicate to students about their progress until days, weeks or even months down the road.

In episode 11 of the Reclaiming the Classroom podcast, James Seaman, a former educator and current MasteryConnect employee, shared an experience about his first year as a teacher. He remembered his students asking, “Have you graded our tests yet?!?” At the time, he thought of grading the tests as just another thing on his already infinite (and exhausting) to-do list. But looking back, he realized it was because the students truly wanted to know how they had done—they wanted to know about their own learning.

And that’s why formative assessment is so important. It’s hallmark is the ability to provide students with feedback as learning happens, while there is still time to influence growth. There are many tools that can help you get immediate results back to your students, including GradeCam or the Socrative app. Some teachers find that meeting with students for mini-sessions or dividing students into groups based on levels of understanding helps them target feedback.

When crafting your feedback to students, there are few guidelines to keep in mind.

Rules for Effective Feedback

  • It’s relevant
  • It includes clear goals
  • It addresses misconceptions
  • It provides opportunity for students to advance
  • It includes comments, not only grades

Crafting effective feedback helps students know exactly where they are…and where they need to be. This is critical for the next step: self-evaluation.

#3 Opportunities for Self-Evaluation
Meaningful formative assessment provides the opportunity for both the student and the teacher to reflect on learning. For the teacher, this involves reflecting on what’s happening in the classroom, then making appropriate changes to instructional practices and strategies to improve student outcomes. For the student, this means analyzing their individual learning and setting goals for future growth.

Teacher Self-Evaluation
Part of teaching is fine-tuning your skills, taking new approaches, and adapting to the needs of your students. Formative assessment gives you the opportunity to get constant feedback from your class so you can adjust instruction in the moment. Below are a few steps to take and questions to help you self-evaluate.

Consider the formative assessment you administered.

  • Did it collect evidence of student learning?
  • Did it provide you with helpful data to inform instruction?

Analyze the assessment data.

  • What percentage of students mastered the concept?
  • What level of intervention, remediation, or enrichment will be needed?
  • What other strategies or resources might I use in the future?
  • What went well and what needs to be changed in the instructional cycle?
  • Are there any supports available to me at my school or district?

Make a plan and execute on it.

  • How am I going to group my students for further instruction?
  • What resources/strategies will I use with each group?
  • How and when will I reassess?

After you have taken the time to reflect on your own performance, the next step is helping students do the same.

Student Self-Evaluation
Providing students with opportunities to engage in their own learning has been shown to lead to some pretty impressive results. Students who approach academics with a learning mindset—with a focus on continual learning and self-improvement—tend to experience greater academic success than students with a performance mindset (one based on ability, comparison to others, and external consequences).

But the ability to self-evaluate is a learned proficiency, one that requires an environment of trust. Such environment—one that encourages students to take academic risks and take ownership of their learning—helps students respond to feedback and take the next steps to close the learning gaps.

Consider how students in your classroom would successfully evaluate their own learning. What would it look like? How would you know they are self-evaluating effectively? What strategies would you use to help them become more proficient in self-evaluation?

Below are few tips from other educators on how to help students assess their own learning.

Strategies on Helping Student Self-Evaluate

  • Have students fill out rubrics about their own performance
  • Ask students to highlight parts of the assessment where they were unsure
  • Allow students the opportunity to correct their mistakes
  • Divide students into pairs or small groups to solicit peer feedback
  • Help students set SMART Goals (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant & Timely) for their learning
  • Help students create portfolios highlighting their best academic work

Formative assessment is a continuous cycle that helps both teachers and students improve performance in the classroom. These three steps will ensure that you are getting the most from your strategies and making the best instructional decisions.

We’d love to hear how you are using formative assessment in your class, school, or district! Share your activities with us at blog@masteryconnect.com and you may be featured in an upcoming post.



MasteryConnect helps over 2.5 million educators around the world with formative assessment, standards-based grading, data-driven instruction, and teacher collaboration. Get more info on how MasteryConnect may help in your teachers and students.

Formative vs Summative

Summative vs. Formative Assessment | How they’re different, why they’re used, and their effect on student learning

With so much emphasis on high-stakes testing and federal mandates like NCLB and ESSA, there has been much (and often heated) debate on the role of assessment in our public schools. So it’s no wonder that the word “assessment” can carry some mighty heavy baggage for K-12 educators.

But with formative assessment making a bold move to the forefront of educational trends, the term “assessment” may be shaking part of its negative reputation. In fact, education innovators are finding that assessment, when used frequently throughout the learning cycle, actually helps teachers improve student outcomes by giving them the insights they need for data-driven instruction and more meaningful teacher collaboration.

At first glance, many think that it’s a which-one-is-better debate when it comes to formative and summative assessment. Not really true. Although we definitely included a “versus” in the headline, they aren’t really at odds with one another. Rather, they both have value and provide educators with critical information; they’re just used at different times for different purposes.

Read on as we explore the differences between formative assessment and summative assessment and the role each has in K-12.


What is summative assessment?
When most of us think of the term “assessment”, we likely conjure thoughts of anxiety-inducing “traditional” tests, like final exams or the SAT. These are examples of summative assessment.

Like the term suggests, summative assessment is used to gauge the culmination of student learning at the conclusion of a specific instructional period, be it the end of a chapter, a course, a project, or a school year. The key factor in defining summative assessment is that it’s used to evaluate learning, not to inform teaching and learning.

In short, summative assessment is assessment OF learning.

Examples of Summative Assessment

  • State-mandated testing
  • Year-end testing
  • Final recital
  • Unit or chapter-end tests
  • District benchmark or interim assessments
  • Final papers
  • Portfolios
  • Placement tests

In most cases, these types of assessments are spread out over a specific and predetermined time period, and (when used in the classroom) are included in the grading process. Furthermore, summative assessment can be used to determine placement, as well as gauge the learning of groups for educational research and innovation.

Summative assessments do have their purpose, but there is one important thing they (often) don’t do: They do not inform growth for students or teachers. Because they are taken at quarter, semester, or year end, it’s difficult to use the data they produce to adjust instruction. Enter formative assessment.


What is formative assessment?
The process of formative assessment embeds checks for understanding into the learning cycle to provide feedback to teachers, allowing them to adjust instruction and provide personalized learning opportunities based on students’ unique needs. Formative assessment also provides critical feedback to students, so they can track their progress and take greater ownership of their learning.

In short, formative assessment is assessment FOR learning.

Examples of Formative Assessment
Formative assessment tends to fall into two categories, formal and informal.

Formal formative assessments is often documented and may or may not carry grade points. Examples include:

  • Quizzes
  • Papers
  • Entrance slips
  • Presentations
  • Concept maps
  • Written surveys

Informal formative assessments tend to be less documented and are often more performance-based. Examples include:

  • Quick checks for understanding
  • Questioning
  • Discussions
  • Observations
  • Confidence indications (e.g. “thumbs up / thumbs down”)
  • Interviews

(Psst! Want formative assessment ideas? Check out this post.)

Formative assessment provides K-12 educators the critical data they need to do what we at MasteryConnect call “The Big Three”: identify student levels of understanding in the real time, target students for intervention, and self-evaluate instruction.

Luckily, solutions are emerging to help administrators and teachers track student progress while learning happens and overcome the once very time-intensive process of tracking formative student data (ugh…those spreadsheets). With this in-the-moment data, teachers can more easily and effectively identify where students are right now and weigh that against where they need to be, then connect the data through adjusted instruction and feedback.



MasteryConnect provides K-12 web and mobile solutions to help educators visualize student levels of understanding in real time, so you can more easily use formative assessment data to drive student outcomes.
Ready to talk about how we can help your school or district? Let us know!

10 Formative Assessment Ideas

Formative assessment is gaining an increasingly brighter (and very worthy) spotlight in the K-12 community. As more and more schools and districts make the move to a growth mindset and mastery learning, formative assessment may be the most powerful tool to help teachers identify strategies to improve their own practice, while providing students with the personalized attention they need to succeed academically.

Like the name implies, formative assessment helps guide learning and instruction by providing immediate student feedback while learning happens. Unlike summative tests, which typically occur at the end of a chapter or unit, formative assessments are usually ungraded or don’t carry heavily weighted points.Rather, formative assessment is a quick check for understanding to help teachers answer important questions about student growth: What do my students know? What do they still need to learn? How should I adapt my instruction?

Most teachers find that incorporating formative assessment strategies into their classrooms is rather easy and seamless. In fact, you’ve probably incorporated some type of formative assessment since you first stepped foot in a classroom—you just may not have called it by “formative assessment.”

Read on as we break down 10 formative assessment examples you can start using in your classroom now.

#1 Entrance Slips

A modern take on the time-tested exit ticket, this formative assessment technique asks students to share their understanding at the beginning of class.

Have them jot down what they learned from the previous day’s lesson, share how they’d apply what they learned in a real-world scenario, or ask questions they may have about the material. Use strips of paper, index cards, or an online solution like Socrative to gather student responses. Then use their responses to answer questions at the beginning of class, re-teach an important concept, modify the day’s lesson, or determine if the class is ready to forge ahead.

#2 Open-Ended Questioning

Asking questions that require more than simple yes-or-no responses encourages students to use their higher-order reasoning skills. Additionally, when students are asked questions like “Does this make sense?” or “Do you understand?”, they may answer “yes” even if they need more help.

Ask questions that make them think more deeply about the class material. You may use these questions to start students talking as a class, begin small group discussions, or utilize as a writing prompt. This will help them make the transition from memorizing to cognitively processing their response.

#3 Postcards

This formative assessment strategy works particularly well for history or social studies students, but can be used in other context like ELA or current affairs.

Ask students to take on the persona of a historical figure, a fictional character from a novel, or a person in the news to write a postcard to another individual. Students should think beyond the historical facts, such as dates or locations, and more closely consider context, causes and effects, and other social factors. You may, perhaps, choose to provide them with a series of questions to help them get writing.

#4 Two Stars & a Wish

Peer review and collaboration are another way to implement formative assessment in your classroom. Allowing students to see others work not only promotes collaboration, but may further their own understanding of the material. This K-12 assessment strategy works well for many assignment types, including oral performances, written assignments, or art pieces.

After discussion of the work, ask each student or group to write down two stars (areas where the work excelled) and a wish (an area where it may be improved) about a peer’s project or essay.This formative assessment example is designed to keep things positive, while still providing each student with constructive feedback.

#5 Bullet List

Assessing each student’s level of understanding at the conclusion of class time can help you prepare for the next day’s lesson or determine if you need to assign additional activities. Asking them to put their thoughts in writing will also save you from the dreaded silence that can happen when asking for their questions aloud.

At the end of a lesson, encourage students to itemize three things that he or she didn’t understand about the material. Students may write down their responses or send them electronically via a classroom edtech system. After writing them down, you may also ask them to share their questions out loud to provide an opportunity to receive peer feedback. For younger grades, hold “carpet time”, when students sit down to go over questions as a group.

#6 Quiz Bowl

Formative assessment can be fun and games when you add in a little friendly competition. The activity not only adds a layer of excitement to learning, it promotes teamwork and collaboration among students.

To hold a bowl of your own, separate the class into teams. Use a buzzer, bell, or raised hands for teams to answer, with each correct answer earning the team points. Our personal favorite, of course, is holding a Socrative Space Race, during which students race their icons (even unicorns!) across the screen.

#7 Collages

Spark creativity in your students by asking them to create collages with a mix of images they believe demonstrates their understanding of a concept. This formative assessment idea can be used in nearly every subject for any age group, and can be done individually or in groups.

Ask students to present their collages to the class and explain why they chose to include each image. Allow students to ask questions or provide feedback. Or hang collages on a gallery wall where students can view others’ work.

#8 Mini Meetings

Singling out an individual can cause anxiety for the student. No student, after all, wants to hear, “See me after class.” However, when teacher-student meetings are scheduled as a standard among the entire classroom, it can promote learning while sparing any unintended embarrassment. This formative assessment activity can be particularly helpful for introverted students who may be too shy to speak up in front of a group.

Meet with each student, perhaps even for a few minutes or once per week, to discuss a specific assignment or concept or to allow them to ask questions or receive feedback. Scheduling these meetings while the rest of the class is working on a project ensures learning continues for all students.

#9 Fists to Fives or Thumbs Up / Thumbs Down

A twist on the all-time formative assessment classic (raising hands) “fists to fives” or “thumbs up / down” allows students to communicate their level of comfort with the day’s materials with an easy visual cue.

Ask your students to quickly show their understanding with a numerical rating or with a simple thumbs up or down. Or, if you have a tech solution, ask them to send in their rating anonymously from a laptop, tablet, or hand-held device.   

#10  A Quick-Check Quiz

Although you may already have chapter or unit-end quizzes planned, a quick-check quiz—or even a single question—will give you valuable insight into student growth before moving on. Be sure to keep it informal to alleviate pressure on students.

Ask students to answer questions that will demonstrate their mastery of material. Their responses will help you determine if it is time to move on, divide students into groups, provide more examples, or identify students that needs a little extra help.

If you’re a formative assessment fanatic, share your strategies with us on Twitter, on Facebook, or at blog@masteryconnect.com. We’d love to hear how you’re helping students conquer the world!



MasteryConnect provides K-12 web and mobile solutions to help educators visualize student levels of understanding in real time, so you can more easily use formative assessment data to drive student outcomes.
Ready to talk to about how we can help your school or district? Let us know!

What are you currently doing to monitor student performance in your school? It seems as though I have been asked this question a thousand times over the last few months. There is a tremendous push to deeply mine for the data that will help improve instruction and student outcomes. The range and volume of data available to schools today makes it particularly difficult for teachers to parse the numbers. Students are being given simple predictive curriculum based measurements, a variety of formative and benchmarks assessments as well as the traditional summative criterion and norm referenced tests.

Question: Do we need all this assessment?
Answer: Probably not, but can students in your school successfully build a garden shed?

If your goal is to have your students build a simple structure, like a garden shed, you would probably want to make sure they were proficient in hammering nails. Hammering nails is perhaps the most basic and essential skill needed to accomplish this goal. Monitoring student proficiency is simple. You can count the number of nails a student hammers into a block of wood in a given amount of time…say one minute. You can subtract the number of bent nails from the total and establish a benchmark for proficiency. A student who hammers 20 or more nails in one minute might be considered proficient while a student who only hammers 15-19 nails would be near proficient and anyone who hammers less than 15 would be at risk.

The research has shown that students who are proficient at hammering nails are more likely to successfully build a garden shed. Hammering nails is therefore a solid predictor of student shed building success. The value of the one-minute nail pounding assessment is important but limited, as it merely predicts the speed a student can hammer nails. Building a garden shed requires much more than just hammering nails.

If the students are going to successfully build a garden shed, they will eventually need to understand how to read a blueprint, use a tape measure, level the foundation as well as frame, plumb and square the walls. Students will also need to be able to install the trusses, roof and shingles. Doors and windows need to be hung, siding and finish trim installed with a fresh coat of paint applied to the finished building. If a teacher wants to ensure that every student will succeed, they will need to monitor student performance every step of the way.

A student may make an initial attempt to level the foundation and fail to accomplish the task. If this goes unnoticed, the final outcome is already compromised. If the teacher recognizes the error and remediates the student until they have successfully completed the task, the potential for complete success remains. Teachers increase the likelihood of success for each student so long as they continue to monitor student performance and ensure that the students master the skills and tasks required for each objective. Along the way, the teacher may find that some students already possess the required skills or become proficient more quickly than others. These students could be encouraged to modify the complexity of their garden shed by adding dormers, details or structural modifications. Those students who struggle to master the necessary skills may, in turn, modify or simplify their structures to accommodate for their needs. Students using the essential building skills they have acquired will present unique garden sheds that meet the established criteria.

Upon completion of each student’s garden shed, the teacher needs to assess the totality of the students work. Did the student successfully build a garden shed? Was the quality of the student work proficient and how does their garden shed compare to the work of the other students? The evaluation of the completed project provides a summary of the student’s success or failure and allows the teacher to evaluate his/her own success as an instructor/teacher. This information may prove valuable for the teacher as they look to improve upon their future practice, but for the student, there is little opportunity to address skill deficiencies given that the time to complete the shed has passed.

Hammering nails is an essential skill and may loosely correlate to the successful building of a garden shed, but it is the development and application of a myriad of skills that ultimately determine whether or not a student will be successful. If a teacher wants to maximize the number of students who succeed, they must ensure mastery of the essential skills. When every child can successfully hammer a nail, lay a firm foundation and build upon it a solid structure, you increase the likelyhood that none of them will ever be left out in the cold.