Sometimes it seems like collaborative teams of educators are on different pages when it comes to assessment. Are we assessing students to put grades in our grade books? To measure what they’ve learned? To determine what (if any) interventions are necessary?
It’s been my experience that sometimes we try to accomplish all of these in a single assessment… and often when we try to do it all at once, we wind up not doing any single thing particularly well. So, in this post I want to reflect on why we assess our students.
To begin, I want to share my favorite analogy for understanding the differences between two major types of assessment: formative and summative. This quote comes from Robert Stake:
“When the cook tastes the soup, that’s formative; when the guests taste the soup, that’s summative.”
I love this analogy because it makes the line between formative and summative so much clearer. When a cook tastes the soup, she is primarily interested in getting information that will help her know if she needs to modify the soup before it is done and cannot be changed. By the time the customer eats the soup, it is done and no changes can be made by the cook. The important takeaway is that they both taste the soup for different reasons.
So, here are some of my thoughts on assessment broken down by formative and summative.
Ideally, you know what you will do if the assessment results show that they do understand the concept as well as what you will do if they don’t. You can also ask yourself, “What’s the fewest number of questions I need to give students to get this data?” For example, why would you want to give students 20 questions when 2 would do just fine? Similarly, why would the cook taste 20 spoonfuls of soup when 2 spoonfuls would give her the information she needs?
Sometimes I see teachers adding more questions to an assessment, just so it takes the entire period! This winds up being a waste of time for formative assessments because why would you ask more questions than just enough to answer your question? That’s more work for you to grade and doesn’t help you answer your question any better! A good rule to follow is this: if you can’t explain what you will do as a result of a student getting each additional question right or wrong, then you’ve got too many questions.
Also, something strange about formative assessment is that you don’t have to review every single student’s assessment. Consider that in a class of 30 students, if 29 students showed that no intervention was necessary, would you do a whole-class intervention if the 30th student was struggling? Similarly, if 29 students showed that they needed intervention, would you skip doing intervention if the 30th student was fine? Depending on your situation, you might only need to grade 50% to 70% of them to have sufficient data to make a decision.
Remember that with formative assessment, you are looking for general trends that can inform your instruction. It’s similiar to what the United States does with the Census. For some questions, they don’t survey everyone but rather ~5% of the population and then use that data to extrapolate results for the rest of the United States.
Finally, formative assessments should rarely (or never?) be used as grades in the grade book. Again, that’s not their purpose.
This can lead to other problems though. I’ve talked to teachers in multiple districts that told me about putting additional easy questions on their assessments because of administrator pressure to raise assessment scores. Obviously, this leads to false positive results where students appear to understand a topic but don’t.
Also consider the pros and cons of doing reviews before assessments. How might a review affect the assessment results? What does it mean if scores are different when there is or is not a review? Which would be a more accurate measure of what students know?
I’ll end with a quote from John Hattie’s Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning
The major reason for administering tests in classrooms is for teachers to find out what they taught well or not, who they taught well or not, and where they should focus next.