Assessment Education Perspectives

If teaching were like medicine: Understanding student needs with formative assessment

Diagnosing academic needs with formative assessment

Think about it . . . the last time you took one of your kids to the doctor, how did she know what was wrong? How was she able to determine that your little one had a typical chest cold and not something more serious, like whooping cough? Was she just a good guesser? Chances are, she used a diagnostic model. She likely started with a question: “Why is this patient coughing?” She then took a moment to assemble her list of possible explanations, and each one had symptoms that fell into two categories: the presenting category, and the associated category.

The presenting category is a big deal because it tells you what the dominant symptom is. The associated category is also really important because it wraps other expected symptoms into a shape around the presenting symptom. The field of medicine has accepted that certain shapes mean a certain diagnosis, and that each diagnosis has a couple of different things that could be used to correct the issue. In this case, the diagnostic process is that the doctor asks more questions and compares symptoms against the nationally-accepted pictures of the possible diagnosis. She determines the best fit and gets your child going on a treatment plan. The ironic thing is that this diagnostic process is going in within your child’s school hundreds of times each day!

Just as a doctor uses symptoms to diagnose issues, teachers use learning standards and skill areas. Learning standards are the grade-level things that we expect a student to be able to work on based on the grade they are enrolled in presently. Skill areas are essentially different configurations of learning standards that a student should have already mastered prior to their current grade.

To understand a student’s needs, the teacher starts off with a question: “Why is this student having a hard time reading sentences out loud?” Then they apply their knowledge of the subject (in this case Reading) to determine the possible explanations. Teachers know what skills are used to execute a learning standard, and they place these in the associated category to make a shape. Just as doctors do, they compare what they know about a student’s skill areas to the possible explanations, determine the cause of the issues, and develop a plan that uses a process to start working on student need areas.

How do teachers get this information?

Simple, the tools are always appropriate and accepted by the people who provide oversight. Doctors use X-rays and MRIs to see what’s going on, and teachers use formative assessment tools. These tools can take many forms: classroom observation, checks for understanding, or traditional quizzes and tests. Like medical tests, each formative assessment tool looks at a different depth of understanding, and like a doctor, a teacher’s experience gives them additional insights into what may be going on.

There are three depths that teachers can examine:

  • REMEDIATION – basically everything students should have learned about a subject up until a few years ago;
  • SUBJECT-LEVEL – everything that a student should have learned about a subject from the beginning of time through the end of the current year;
  • CLASS-PREPAREDNESS – this examines only what students have learned in class so far this year.

Let’s examine these depths of understanding with an example. Say a 5th grade teacher is reading a story with her students in which each page has three sentences and a picture. Students are expected to read their sentences and explain how the picture connects to what they’ve read, a quick assessment. But she notices that 4 students are having issues:

  • Micah could not explain the connection between his image and his text
    • DEPTH: Remediation
    • DIAGNOSIS: He missed CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.3.7, a 3rd grade standard
  • Alexandra got to the last page and was asked to describe how all of the pages came together to tell the story
    • DEPTH: Class-preparedness
    • DIAGNOSIS: She needs to work on CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.5.5, a 5th grade standard from earlier in the week
  • Fabian struggled with pronouncing basic words
    • DEPTH: Subject-level
    • DIAGNOSIS: He should be referred for Title I reading services
  • Liz had a hard time discussing the two main characters in the story
    • DEPTH: Class-preparedness
    • DIAGNOSIS: She needs to work on CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.5.3, a 5th grade standard from earlier in the month

As you can see, the teacher was able to examine the depth of knowledge with this classroom formative assessment exercise. She is able to integrate this information with what she already knows about the student to form a quick plan for “treatment.”

If you use formative assessment to understand student needs, tell us about it on Facebook or Twitter.


This is the first blog in Dr. Jordan Argus’ series, School Rx. In his next post, Dr. Argus explores the different ways that teachers get data about their students.

Dr. Argus is a regular contributor to our blog and is an education advocate, speaker and consultant. Currently, he is an adjunct professor at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology.  


Dr. Jordan Argus