The role of formative and summative assessments

Have you ever wondered why educators make language about our profession harder than it needs to be? Case in point: try asking someone outside our field to jigsaw anything. If you actually get something other than a puzzled look (yes, pun intended), I bet the person runs to their workshop and tries to cut something for you. But today’s thoughts are about assessments.

First, a quick non-educational thought. If you were taking a road trip to the beach, and you did not continually check your directions or GPS and simply expected you would get to your destination, how successful do you think you would be? Would you get there even 70% of the time? Why, then, do teachers expect students to be successful on unit (or summative) exams without appropriate check in points or formative assessments?

A formative assessment if a piece of a larger whole, or a component of greater understanding, that if mastered, can guarantee greater success on the final, or summative assessment. Going back to the road trip analogy, your formative assessments might be the exits off the highway or the different cities and towns you travel through. Even with GPS, I bet most of us double-check whether all these landmarks are accurate. This guarantees our success getting to our destination. Yes, there is still room for error, but it is significantly smaller.

In my classroom I tried incorporating such assessments. Here are a few examples:

If the summative assessment were a formal written paper on a given topic, then I had formative checks to assess whether students understood assigned readings, class discussions, or content expected to be included in the final assessments. These checks could be quizzes, simple discussion posts online, or timed writing assignments. Here’s the deal, though. If a student didn’t achieve satisfactory progress on these formative assignments, I had to remediate the skill or knowledge before the summative occurred. Otherwise, the summative assessment would be a waste.

This idea works for all types of group projects. My students created a summative (or end of unit) election game and presentation. I had several formative checks, including a research-based homework writing assignment about political parties. I also required each team member to be responsible for certain content. I informally checked (and did not grade) these assessments. I also made sure I met with the team at least once every period to check on progress. Again, an ungraded formative check-in, but an indicator of progress that I could record.

When carefully implementing summative and formative assessments, any teacher should be able to predict progress on the summative, or unit assessments. Yes, predict. I’d like to think you can do this within 5%. I tried this with my final exams this year. I’ll report my results here soon.

Formative and summative assessments are largely overlooked in education, however educators are deluding themselves to not think these are important. Please, ask questions for further clarification. Also, as stated before, I need to spend perhaps a week or more on this topic once my Summer Blog Party concludes.


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