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Formal vs Informal Assessment: Tools to Monitor a Child’s Progress

Find out how to use formal and informal assessment techniques in your classroom.

Formal vs Informal Assessment: Tools to Monitor a Child’s Progress

Formal vs Informal Assessment: Tools to Monitor a Child’s Progress

Early childhood development is complex. This is a crucial time in children’s lives as they are actively learning and cultivating cognitive, language, physical, and social-emotional skills. It is a time when they are being exposed to classroom concepts and discovering how they apply to the real world. As an educator monitoring children’s growth and development, a clear assessment tool can provide valuable insight into your lessons and help you determine if your children are making progress towards learning outcomes.

Assessment involves using both formal and informal techniques to monitor children’s progress. A combination of assessment methods can help you evaluate children, strategize educational instruction, and implement new ideas. In this article, we’ll discuss formal and informal assessments—what they are, their differences, and how to use them both in the classroom.

Young girl coloring a picture and a woman sitting beside her at a glass table.


What is formal assessment?

Preschool assessments are an integral part of early childhood education. Formal assessment is a systematic evaluation method used to test a child’s learning and understanding and is typically used to grade performance against a standard or benchmark. Formal assessments are preplanned and have specific criteria that are used for scoring and analysis. They are often used to measure how much knowledge a child retains after a lesson, similar to a summative assessment.

The results of formal assessments allow you to learn new information about your preschoolers and identify their strengths and weaknesses. An efficient tool for comparison, these evaluations also give you insight into how children measure up to their peers and often to other children across the county, state, and country.

Examples of formal assessments include standardized tests, progress report cards, and portfolios.

Standardized tests

Standardized tests are assessments that are administered in the same way each time. This includes how the instructions are given, how the questions are asked, and how the tests are scored. Preschoolers’ first encounter with standardized tests typically occurs when they take the kindergarten readiness tests or kindergarten entry assessments (KEAs).

KEAs are not designed to decide whether children should or shouldn’t enter kindergarten. Instead, they provide a snapshot of what preschool-age children know, in comparison to their peers, as they enter kindergarten. KEAs are also used to inform classroom instruction and curriculum planning. They are also used to identify which children might require special education services. 

Progress report cards

Progress report cards create a direct line of communication between educators and families. They provide families with evaluations and updates on their children’s overall progress, including how they’re performing in the four main developmental areas: physical, language, cognitive, and social-emotional. Progress report cards help identify learning and behavior trends as well as developmental delays in children. This type of formal assessment allows teachers to plan and improve on the curriculum.


Portfolios are another assessment tool that allows you to document a child’s progress over time. As you collect various samples of your preschoolers’ work, you can create structured digital or physical portfolios that highlight a child’s cognitive, language, social-emotional, and physical development. This gives you and families insight into a child’s experiences, strengths, and weaknesses while revealing how they are progressing.

What is informal assessment?

Informal assessment is a non-standardized evaluation method used to measure a child’s knowledge and understanding. Alternative to formal assessments, informal assessments don’t use any criteria or rubric to guide evaluation. Educators have the opportunity to be more creative when conducting informal assessments because of the loose structure and absence of comparisons or standards. 

Examples of informal assessment include observation, samples of children’s work, and one-to-one conversations.

woman looking at children writing



One of the most common methods of informal assessment, observation involves paying close  attention to your preschoolers and recording information as they learn, play, and interact with the world around them. Observation involves documenting a child’s learning over time, observing children and their strategies as they problem-solve, and assigning suitable work based on current abilities.There are several observation methods you can adopt in your classroom, for example running record observations and anecdotal records.

Samples of children’s work

Collecting samples of a child’s work is the informal assessment alternative to a more structured portfolio. By using children’s drawings, paintings, or writing samples, you can assess their skills and provide updates on their learning. These samples can also provide insight into the cognitive and creative abilities of your children. Be sure to include a note with each sample so you, other staff, and families understand the context in which the sample was created.

One-to-one conversations

There are many reasons to practice engaging young children in conversation. Not only does it build their language and social-emotional skills, but it also provides an opportunity to gauge their knowledge and understanding. To fully benefit from these conversations, keep away from close-ended questions and replace them with open-ended alternatives. For insight into their understanding, you might ask open-ended questions like “Why did you do that?”, “What made you think of that?”, or “Why do you think that happened?”

The difference between formal and informal assessment

Assessment in early childhood education helps you measure a child’s growth and development, identify key learning and behavior trends, and improves teacher instruction. Both formal and informal assessments have a solid place in an early education setting; however, you’ll find that they differ in their purpose, grading system, scope, flexibility, and score comparison.


Formal assessments are used to determine a child’s knowledge based on specific guidelines and criteria. The purpose of formal assessment is to evaluate a child’s overall performance—knowledge, understanding, and implementation—at the end of a learning experience. Their knowledge is compared to a set standard among their peers and other children their age. This is why standardized tests are a commonly used tool in these evaluations. 

Conversely, informal assessments are used to gather immediate feedback on what a child has learned so far. They are used to track progress and identify challenges. You could also consider one of the purposes of informal assessments to be to prepare children for formal assessments.

Grading system

While formal assessments are usually graded, informal assessments are not. Formal assessments often use a rubric or specific assessment criteria. With informal assessments, educators use past performance to evaluate current accomplishments. A child’s previous work is used as an evaluation tool.


Formal assessments measure performance on a broad level, while informal assessments are highly individualized. The former evaluates surface-level performance so a grade or score can be assigned. It allows for data collection across months and years to determine trends among similar-aged children. 

Informal assessments provide a narrow, more detailed view of each child and their progress. They can help educators identify and explore specific skills. This evaluation method also enables you to create individualized instruction and goals for children based on their specific progress and needs.


There is little flexibility in formal assessments when compared to the informal alternative. Formal evaluations require administrators to stick to a system. The way the assessment is administered has to be the same. There are no deviations from the questions or the scoring process. Informal assessments allow educators to be as flexible as necessary. They can be adjusted based on the specific needs of the child or as a result of feedback on the child’s performance.

Score comparison

Formal assessment grades or scores are used to compare a child’s results to children in the same age group, whether that is in their classroom, in the state, or across the country. Informal assessment performances aren’t scored in the typical way. Instead, they are individual assessments where current performance is compared to previous work.

How to use formal and informal assessments in the classroom

Formal and informal assessments serve different purposes, so you’re likely to use them in different circumstances in the classroom. While informal assessments are typically less stressful for children, formal assessments can be better indicators of how much a child has learned because they typically span an entire lesson, providing a look into what happened from start to finish. Therefore, you’ll find that informal assessments are ideal when measuring progress during a lesson or period of instruction, while formal assessments are efficient tools for assessing knowledge after a lesson is completed.

Informal assessments during a lesson can help you to determine how a child is performing and provide insight into how they are progressing based on past performance. This real-time feedback creates an opportunity for you to immediately address issues, adjust your lessons, and offer extra support or resources to your children. A tool like brightwheel’s lesson plan feature helps you do all of this by allowing you to create custom lesson plans, log observations, and share progress updates with families—all from the same platform. Because informal assessments happen in a child’s natural learning environment, they can provide a more accurate picture of their abilities in a situation that is free from the pressure that often comes with formal assessments.

However, using formal assessments is ideal at the end of lessons, because they are objective. The standardized way of administering and scoring formal assessments creates a common ground for measuring the performance of all children. This makes formal assessments ideal for updating families quarterly or at the end of the school year. By using portfolios and progress reports, you can strengthen the collaborative effort of childhood education and development between you and families by increasing transparency into the child’s learning and progress.

It’s time to assess your strategy

Assessment in early childhood education is a process of gathering information about a child to evaluate their knowledge, monitor their progress, and guide educational instruction. Formal and informal assessments are two techniques used to accomplish this. While the former helps measure current knowledge and skills compared to similar-aged children, the latter evaluates individual progress. Regardless of their purpose, both formal and informal assessments are effective tools to use in an early childhood setting.

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