Florida Formative Assessments Help Teachers Target Students’ Needs

Students work in groups based on their formative assessment results. Photo Credit: Learning Systems Institute, Florida State University.

Students work in groups based on their formative assessment results. Photo Credit: Learning Systems Institute, Florida State University.

Teachers are given powerful tools to help students master rigorous college- and career-ready standards.

Bette Smith, an Algebra I teacher at Bartram Trail High School in St. Johns, does a lot of running during the school day to address the learning needs of each of her students. But with the help of a new tool called the Mathematics Formative Assessment System (MFAS), her running around is targeted and she is able to use her time more efficiently and effectively. “I am able to see who needs attention [and] who needs me to tell them they are on the right track,” she says. “It has totally cut down on the running and gives students more time with me.”

MFAS, which is free and available online, includes more than 1,300 tasks and problems that teachers can use to gauge students’ knowledge of the State mathematics standards. With each task comes a rubric that helps teachers interpret students’ responses to identify their needs and then customize their instruction.

Funded by a Race to the Top grant in 2011, the project originally focused on grades K–3, but it proved so valuable that districts asked the Florida Department of Education to expand MFAS. The tool now includes grades 4–8, Algebra I and Geometry.

Finding Out What Students Know

The tasks and problems are brief and are designed to be used by teachers to group students according to their needs. The rubrics are detailed and include examples of student work correlated with typical misconceptions or errors. That helps teachers understand students’ thinking and design lessons accordingly.

“Sometimes just a good thought-provoking question will send students to the next level or to mastery of the standard,” Smith says.

Unlike other assessments, however, the formative assessments do not affect students’ grades or whether they will be promoted to the next grade level. “I call it Show What You Know Day,” says Leah Howell, a kindergarten teacher at Destin Elementary School in Destin. “I tell the students I am going to help them. I just need to know what they know and what they need to learn. They love it.”

“It’s worked wonders for my students’ level of engagement,” says Kevin Mierzwinski, who teaches seventh grade and one period of advanced sixth grade mathematics at Pacetti Bay Middle School in St. Augustine. “With MFAS, students are working right at their struggle level. They are capable of doing the task and get direction, but it is not so easy they race through it.”

Four students seated around a desk are taking formative assessments.

Students in Bette Smith’s class at Bartram Trails High School take formative assessments to find out whether they have mastered State standards or need additional support. Photo Credit: Learning Systems Institute, Florida State University.

Rigorous Research Behind Each Task

Before the tasks are posted on the MFAS website, they are subjected to rigorous testing and multiple revisions in a process managed by the Florida Center for Research on Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (FCR-STEM) at Florida State University. A team of teachers, education researchers and mathematicians reviews the State standards and develops tasks designed to measure students’ mastery. The tasks are then field tested in the classroom under the guidance of a member of the research team.

After the field test, the scoring rubric is developed. The revised task and rubric are then administered by a partner teacher. After additional revisions, each task is sent out to an external review team of experts in curriculum, standards and formative assessment. The whole process, from creation to posting, usually takes six to eight weeks.

In Florida, 2014 was a transition year as the State moved to new State Standards. As a result, some tasks and rubrics are being revised again in 2015. “Teachers’ instruction has changed as they have embraced the new standards,” says Maureen Oberlin, the MFAS project manager, who is with the Learning Systems Institute at Florida State University. “So students’ responses have changed as well.”

Improving Student Learning and Teacher Content Knowledge

As of March 30, 2015, the tasks and rubrics on the MFAS site have been downloaded or viewed more than 493,000 times.  To assess MFAS’ impact in the classroom, FCR-STEM conducted a year-long field trial in kindergarten and first grade in school year 2012–2013. The results confirmed positive findings from two previous, shorter studies, showing that students whose teachers used MFAS gained an additional 10 weeks of learning compared to their peers, and teachers who use MFAS acquired significantly more mathematics knowledge.

The MFAS includes resource kits for teachers to help them plan and review lessons as well as online professional development modules for the elementary grades. Additional modules for grades 6–8, Algebra I and Geometry are currently being developed.

In addition, the team leading the work provides training at the request of districts. “We have been in every district in the State to some extent,” says Oberlin. “We train principals and assistant principals and then teachers.”

Teachers who have been involved in creating the MFAS tasks and rubrics also provide their colleagues with support. “I was involved in rubric reviews and reviewing tasks,” says Howell. “Now I am the facilitator for my school. If someone needs help or training, they come to me. And I train other teachers to teach those at their grade level to use MFAS.”

“Before MFAS,” says Howell, “I didn’t have a clear understanding of what I needed to do. Now my teaching style has changed. I have grown professionally as a mathematics teacher. I learned about equality and have a deeper content knowledge.”


  • Teachers need support. Helping teachers customize instruction requires initial support from the district, principals and assistant principals. Teachers, once trained, serve as support to other teachers using MFAS.
  • The formative assessments should not count toward grades. The assessments can be focused on student needs because they are not graded and are low stakes.
  • Transitioning to new standards is tough. By using the tasks and rubrics, teachers are benefiting from the research that determined what constitutes good, average and weak performance.