The Case for Low-Stakes 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 if you need a promo code.

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

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