Learning From Near Misses: A Call for Strong Formative Assessments

In Ben Paynter’s article The Fire Next Time [Wired Magazine- August 2012] he explains how near misses are not misses because of skill, but rather luck.  You’ll likely not forget NASA’s Columbia disaster in 2005.  Well, it turns out foam insulation had broken off 79 times before, and NASA scientists attributed the resulting successful space flights to skill, not luck.

Now, NASA researchers are leaning more toward luck.  Actually, that study is quite old too, but worth looking back to.  Such work reminds us that near misses need to be evaluated closely to determine what could be done to avoid the near misses in the future.  Such attention to near misses has helped the FAA reduce fatalities by 83% over the last decade.

Doesn’t this sound like formative assessments?  Shouldn’t teachers have clear formative assessments that are predictors of success or failure on summative assessments?  Such predictors would lower the “near misses” in education.  You know, the student that says he or she barely knew the information but still did well… or the student who seems to know it all, but performs poorly on standardized assessments.  To be clear, I am not arguing that standardized assessments are golden; rather, as teachers we can better evaluate and predict the success on any assessment.

I started using formative assessments as predictors for success this year, and I was amazed at how more direct and organized my instruction and one-on-one help could be to students- this after just one year.  As I finalize my unit plans for this year, I will post for review and comments, so hopefully the use of formative/summative assessments will become more clear.


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