Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Summative? Formative? I Just Wanna Know What My Kids Don't...

I was once a young teacher, fresh out of college, bright eyed and bushy tailed, full of great ideas. There were all these things I wanted to try with my kids, new ways of teaching and figuring out I was doing the best job possible. Then reality. My teaching was stuffed into a box and I was told that the only way to understand what my kids were learning was through testing. Standardized Testing. Data, data, data...I was confused. That totally went against what I was taught in college but I was young and new and didn't want to make waves. I fell in line and did what I was told...for a year. Then it dawned on me. It's not all about data. It is all about kids.

On #edchat last night participants discussed and debated Formative and Summative Assessments and their role in the classroom. They also examined the role of the teacher and the student when it comes to assessments. It was, as it always is, a wonderful discussion full of insight and interesting ideas.

Here is some of what was said:
  • Formative assessments are a teacher's bread and butter. We use all sorts of techniques from formal to quick and easy to see if our students are gaining understanding. Formative assessments are used all the time throughout a unit and the results from those assessments help us determine how to continue and when to change a lesson, review, repeat, skip, move faster, slow down, etc. Summative assessments are necessary for grading purposes. As was mentioned in the chat parents and other powers that be require some form of grading or testing. I prefer to use projects and different types of products as summative assessments as opposed to paper and pencil tests. -A Teacher
  • I think formative assessment can be helpful to the learner and the teacher. So it can play an important role in the classroom. I worry less about summative assessment because I think learning is not about being able to demonstrate knowledge as much as it is developing thinking and knowing how to solve problems. Students of the future will need to know how to be a learner more than they will need to know facts. -A Principal
  • Formative assessment lets teachers and students know where they are in the learning process. Summative assessment lets teachers and students know how much of the material has finally been mastered. Both are integral to the learning process. -A District Administrator
  • There is a merit to both types of assessment. The key is that they must be used correctly for the purposes of improvement. Teachers should be using formative assessments to reflect on their instructional practices as well as for improving student achievement. The focus should be on learning and not on grading. Grades can occur with or without learning. -A School Administrator
You can read more comments here and the archive of the entire chat here.

First some background. What are summative and formative assessments? The Florida Center For Instructional Technology at USF has broken it down really well.

"Formative assessments are on-going assessments, reviews, and observations in a classroom. Teachers use formative assessment to improve instructional methods and student feedback throughout the teaching and learning process. For example, if a teacher observes that some students do not grasp a concept, she or he can design a review activity or use a different instructional strategy. Likewise, students can monitor their progress with periodic quizzes and performance tasks. The results of formative assessments are used to modify and validate instruction."

"Summative assessments are typically used to evaluate the effectiveness of instructional programs and services at the end of an academic year or at a pre-determined time. The goal of summative assessments is to make a judgment of student competency after an instructional phase is complete."

Yea, assessments...thats not a touchy subject at all. (Note the sarcasm...)

I will start just like I did yesterday saying that this was not a discussion on just standardized testing. We, for whatever reason, can not change (at least in the near future) that our kids have standardized testing. Those are the mandates put in place by the All-Knowing, All-Powerful, Federal Government. (Note the sarcasm's the last time, I promise.) Whats worse is those at the state level have been drinking the data kool-aid and instead of standing up for education in their state they follow right along. Oh and it could be the threat of revoking millions in federal funds that has them scared to do anything different. (Money has the strange ability to make people stupid.)

So standardized testing (a form of Summative Assessment) is a reality. It's there. We have to deal with it. But just because the state requires one week of testing or a series of tests for your class or course, does that mean testing is the only option? Much to the surprise of administrators everywhere the answer is no.

As many people last night pointed out a test is not the only form of Summative Assessments. Products and portfolios that demonstrate student understanding can provide as much if not more information about learning than a test. Testing is recall. Low-level thinking skills. Products and portfolios, if properly designed, integrate very high-level, analyzing and application skills.

There are tons of teachers out there who use projects and portfolios at the end of learning. But really, how many teachers are taking the time to really look at their teaching and what their students are learning and making changes. Formative assessments can be as simple as anecdotal observations. Watching the kids when they working together, listening to what they are saying, can provide valuable information. Doing a "ticket out the door" where students answer a simple summary question(s) each day can provide insight into who gets it and who doesn't and what changes need to be made.

So lets think about that for a second. You mean to tell me that by having the students take 5 minutes, everyday, and reflect on what they learned, I can understand what they know and what they don't know and how I need to adjust my lessons for the next day?

Why aren't we doing this? If we are doing this, why are we not pushing for more of this type of assessment in the classroom? Yes data is important. Understanding the end product and making sure students "get it" in the end is important. But think about what if you knew if they got it right after you taught it? That is formative. So instead of allowing summative assessments to drive our teaching we need to begin the transition to relying on the use of formative assessments to tell us, not only how our kids are doing, but how effective our teaching is and what changes we need to make.

What do you think? How do you use Formative Assessments in your classroom, or how do you see them used in your schools? What is the role of summatives in your classroom or in education in general? Do standardized tests have a role at all? If you are a parent, which do you prefer?

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  1. I wish I could have made edchat last night. One other angle on the formative/summative assessment conversation involves grading. Should we be 'grading' formative assessments and other practice opportunities? Can an assessment be "formative" if it's a permanent part of the grade book? In my experience, grading is often a hurdle when it comes to discussing the use of formative assessments (assessment for learning)...i.e. what makes an assessment formative vs. summative?

  2. Thanks for the post. I'm putting together a workshop on A&E for new teachers and I just love your idea of taking 5 minutes everyday to reflect and then adjust for the next day.

    If you had 5 would you spend them to the best effect? That's a good question. Exit cards, observation, journals...

  3. Matt Townsley makes good points about grading. That will be part of the workshop too! Thanks.

  4. I was astonished to find out on Wednesday afternoon at my in-service PD we spent the last 20 minutes reading an ASCD article on Formative Assessment!

    Sadly, it was a typical 'each group read 2 pages of this article and report out on what they thought was important.'

    There was no discussion, no talk of real-life applications.

    Sooo...I forwarded your post to my staff. I hope they enjoy it!

  5. Outstanding! You have managed to weave the many and varied threads of discussion of edchat into an informative and clearly stated post. My thoughts were all over the place as I followed along and now I feel I have a better grasp of some of the ideas.

    As Matt stated above, I had also wondered about how and when to grade formative assessments. The "ticket out the door" review seems a perfect opportunity to incorporate a no fail question(s) to help gauge student understanding and steer future classroom activities. While the answers can come from students in many forms, I have experimented with polling applications (polleverywhere) and cell phones (at home b/c they are not allowed in class) and this may be the perfect way to have students think about the day's discussion and reply via cell phone. The results not only can be reviewed by the teacher, but can be displayed at the beginning of the class the following day.