Based in Long Beach, California, "Teach Me Mr. West" is a blog by Jason West. His posts explore the rewards and challenges of being a highly effective 21st century educator.

Formative & Summative Assessments

Formative & Summative Assessments

Truth be told, I spent a lot of time (frankly, too much time) trying to find a video clip to match this quote, but, alas…not everything I want is on the internet. Seriously, you’d think by now we’d have put literally everything on the internet. I mean, we can find a video clip of someone tapping and crinkling paper for OVER TEN HOURS, but we can’t have all Simpsons clips at our disposal?? You’re doing it wrong, internet! You’re doing it all wrong!

Welcome to part 2 of my 5 part series on education reform—particularly the way we assess our students. For those of you that are a week behind, here is part one. Our topic today is “Formative & Summative Assessments,” an insidious issue in education and also the name of Joni Mitchell’s worst album.

Before we begin to unpack how the way we assess our students can potentially hurt our students, we need to understand why we assess students to begin with. There are actually a myriad of very important, nuanced reasons why we assess students, such as “to increase student focus and motivation,” or “to determine appropriate placement for students with special needs,” or even “to help guide public policy.” For the purpose of this post, however, I want to focus on the two reasons that are at the very center of why we assess students in our classrooms:

·      To evaluate academic progress, and

·      To evaluate overall academic performance.

In education, evaluating progress and overall performance can be achieved through “Formative” and “Summative” assessments. Formative assessments are used to as a benchmark to help students (and their teachers) understand where they are in the learning process and where they need to grow in order to meet the desired end goal. Summative assessments, on the other hand, are used to definitively evaluate the skills taught over the course of a unit (or semester, or year)—they are the end goal. Many teachers look at summative assessments like championship games—isolated events marking the end of a season and used to determine which teams are the most proficient. Formative assessments, on the other hand, are perceived by educators a lot like regular season baseball games are perceived by most Americans—there can be a lot of them (too many, for some), and while the day-to-day results can ultimately be telling, they are essentially meaningless once we get to the main event…football season.

The way in which we view formative and summative assessments can have a significant and detrimental impact on both our student success rates and on our students’ mindsets about what it means to be a learner—and that’s precisely the reason why we need to talk about them.

The oversimplistic distinction so many teachers make between formative and summative assessments relates to a difference in points awarded or weighted grades—formative assessments are worth less simply because they aren't the summative assessments. So while a teacher can say that their formative assessments only count for 10% of the overall grade and their summative assessments account for 25% of the overall grade, they are still (unknowingly, of course) sending a dangerous message to their students. The message is simple: if you don’t know something right away, if you don’t understand it instantly, you will be marked wrong and you will be punished. This teaching practice is completely antithetical to the purpose of having a formative assessment in the first place (because, after all, formative assessments are designed to evaluate academic progress, not performance—the literal definition of “formative” relates to growth and development)! Attaching a grade to a formative assessment tells a kid that the learning process must be uniform across all students and that it doesn’t matter if they eventually master the material by the end of the unit or semester…that what really counts is how quickly they are able to understand the material you are presenting them.

Teachers, repeat this assessment mantra after me: It’s not about speed, it’s about mastery! Go ahead and say it three more times, just to let it really sink in.

Still not convinced? What if I asked my readers to raise their hands (an often-used form of formative assessment) if they understood my Joni Mitchell joke at the beginning of this post. Would it be fair to give A’s to the readers with their hands raised and F’s to the readers who asked, “Who’s Joni Mitchell?” Yes, it would be fair, but only because I’m not that old, dammit, and you pretending to not know who Joni Mitchell is makes me feel like an absolute fossil…so you get an F! You get an F! You get an F! Every. Body. Gets. An. EFFFFFFF!! (REAL TALK: if you don’t get that Oprah reference, then you may want to just go and watch a 6 year-old review toys on YouTube…I promise, I won’t be insulted…much).

The problem with this way of thinking is that it removes the learning process from…well…the learning process! If you’re grading a student based on how quickly they grasp material, you aren’t grading them on learning, you’re grading on speed of learning.

I’m sure some of you are probably thinking, “Honestly, Jason, will you ever be satisfied with the way we deliver our content or assess our students? Or are you just going to be a malcontent for the rest of your life?” Well, imaginary naysayer who, for some reason, always reads and comments on my posts…I know for a fact that the ideal form of assessment currently exists, and it is implemented consistently in every school that offers a beginner’s band class.

Imagine being a student in a beginner’s band class. You are learning how to play your instrument as well as the song your teacher has assigned. You are practicing the song in class and you hit the wrong note or maybe played it at the wrong tempo. The standard practice of a band instructor is to stop the class and correct the mistake—by explaining what was done incorrectly and by explaining how to correctly play the notes. Once the error is corrected, the class then moves on with the practice session. This is the most equitable way a teacher can engage a student in the learning process while taking note of their academic progress. Still aren’t convinced? Imagine a world where that same teacher stopped the class, pulled out his grade book, and declared, “Sorry, Johnny. You just played an A-sharp at a 2/3 tempo, when you were supposed to play an A-sharp at 3/5 tempo! Good luck getting into Harvard, now!

I imagine that if you were a beginning band student and your teacher said this, you’d either burst into a pool of stress-related tears, or you’d have a pretty explicit way of telling him where he could store your baritone sax from now on.

If we continue to treat our formative assessments as, simply, a mini-version of our summative assessments, then we will completely invalidate the process of learning. Treating formative assessments the same way we treat summative assessments teaches our students that complete mastery of a standard is not as important as the speed with which you master at least part of the standard. It’s like telling a couple who have been married for 50 years that their marriage isn’t quite exemplary because it took them a few years of dating to figure out that they were soul mates.

In all professional sports, if you don’t win enough games, you don’t get to participate in the championship game. The problem with treating formative assessments like regular-season games is that we run the risk of making students feel ineligible for the summative assessments as well. If that happens, they will rarely know victory. They will rarely seek victory. They will rarely be champions. And we will continue to produce losing teams.

Do you agree or disagree with my take on formative vs. summative assessments? Do you believe we should evaluate the progress and the product, or just the product? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!

And, while I have you here, are you following me on Instagram? Join my millions (or, more accurately, 500+) of followers by heading over to Instagram, searching up @teachmemrwest and clicking that blue “Follow” button!

Hitting The Pause Button

Hitting The Pause Button

"Down With Homework!"

"Down With Homework!"