What Is It All About? Formative and Summative Assessments

All of us have had this discussion at a staff meeting about what constitutes a formative or summative assessment. According to the Kiddom standards based grading website a summative assessment is, “ any assignment that will count towards a student’s final grade.” Well of course it does, and like most teachers, that are still working off of old pedagogies that are based in the mid-1950s, they are saying, “doesn’t everything count for a grade?” Yes and no. It really depends on the strength of your teaching practices, your experience, and whether you see yourself as a criterion-based or normative-based educator. Regardless the question is: how much does formative and summative assessments count for in your grade book?

As a teacher we have to make choices on a lot of different things in the classroom, one of which is how we are going to grade during the school year. Are you going to be a teacher that “toes the line”, so to speak, and do things exactly as it is on the assumption that your strictness will be preparing your students for the real world. Will you be a teacher that give many chances, helps the students with their work, and even eventually lets them out of the failing grade so they don't blow their grade with you? Or do you fall somewhere in between?

Characteristics of Good
The two types of assessments we deal with have very specific jobs within our teaching and in our grade books. Formative assessments are to be used to gauge where a lesson is and the student is in relation to that standard being taught. They can be as simple as a thumbs up/thumbs down, exit slip, or a short verbal or written quiz to gauge student understanding. As Rick Wormeli states, in his book Differentiation: From Planning to Practice Grades 6-12, the key component to a formative assessment is that it is to be used to track student process as it relates to the standard and allows the student to know where they are in relation to that standard. All too often our students are graded on this formative assessment since it is usually called homework, which is a misnomer unto itself, and too many teachers place too much emphasis on the value of homework. The goal of homework is not to practice what is being taught, but to practice what is already learned (Wormeli).

Bishop Ryan: Behind the ScenesSummative assessments on the other hand are designed for a much greater purpose - to evaluate how much a student has learned in relation to the standard. This would be the end of unit type assessments that are designed to see that a student has got it or not. These are high stakes assessments and should be graded with greater weight than the multitude of formative assessments. Summative assessments are meant to be used to help guide a teacher in evaluating the effectiveness of a unit so they can be tweaked for the next school year.

Both of these assessments bring about the concept of grading whether you are a traditional normative grading school (think 100 point scale) or a standards-based grading school. Both grading styles benefit from the proper use of formative and summative assessments, but standards-based grading (SBG) tends to benefit better by the proper use of formative and summative assessments. In either gradebook though formative assessments (aka homework and exit slips) should count very little, less than ten percent of the entire grade, while summative assessments should account for the rest of the grade. Yes, it should be weighted that much otherwise you run the risk of inflating/deflating grades. By focusing on summative assessments one can limit the amount of “fluff” in the grades and give a more accurate picture of the student’s learning.

All in all teachers need to have a better understanding of formative and summative assessments. Too many of us had very little introduction or continuing professional development on these assessment types, but are to understand what is meant by each when asked by our administrators. Claiming ignorance isn't good enough as a teacher any more. Having the proper mindset and willingness to learn how to use them is highly important in our profession, considering we get evaluated on this every school year. The efficient and proper application of formative and summative assessments allows us to have a better handle on what we are teaching and to actually determine how effective it is that we teach. In the end it is all about our students learning and how can we ensure that if we don't know how effective we are at teaching?

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