Sunday, October 31, 2010

Formative and Summative Assessments: A Dilemma

Formative vs Summative Assessment in the Classroom; How do we incorporate it and what’s more, how can we explain the validity to our parents.

Recently I gave a summative unit test on Canada. I had the students go through what we had covered and pick out what they thought were key learning areas that we should have on the test. What resulted did not make me happy. The majority of students failed this test and I’m at a loss as to why. We clearly set goals before we begin, practice the concepts, and check our learning. However, this test did not reveal that we learned anything. So, what does this tell me? It tells me a few things: a) Our students haven’t a clue how to study and b) we have a long way to go in educating our students and parents in how and why we assess.

Immediately after the test, I received an email from a parent who was very disappointed in his son’s result. In fact, his son failed. The first question he asked me was how do I weight my marks. As a middle school teacher, I don’t think I’ve ever come across this question. I tried to explain to this parent the philosophy and how I would be using the results. However, what came back was how on earth can I assign a grade if I don’t use percentages? After trying to defend my practice I began to think why should I have to? I then read an article from The National Middle School Association called ‘Formative and Summative Assessments in the Classroom’ by Catherine Garrison and Michael Ehringhaus that validated what I was trying to say to this parent. “In order to grapple with what seems to be an over use of testing, educators should frame their view of testing as assessment and that assessment is information. The more information we have about students, the clearer the picture we have about achievement or where gaps may occur.” Here’s exactly what I’m trying to tell this parent. We use testing in a very different way than we did before. I found validity in what I’m practicing as I was reading this article. However, I struggle with the fact that not all teachers assess this way.

I keep a lot of notes about my students. These are behavioural notes, as well as notes about their writing and learning. I write down if they’re struggling with quotation marks and talk to the student about it. That then becomes their goal and I will expect to see improvement in that area. If I give a test, I make a note if the student struggled with a certain area. If a lot struggle, then I know I better reteach it and I better do a much better job of it! Other teachers I work with, do not assess this way and I find it very frustrating. There are no meetings with students to help them overcome learning obstacles. There is no real written feedback that could form a basis for further learning. Therefore, when I go into this meeting with this parent, I will be fighting a one-way battle with no one to back me up. Many teachers I know still use percentages to base their marks. Many of their comments are always on whether or not they prepare for tests or if their homework is done. I have never been able to figure out what that actually says about their learning.

I think that I will continue to read on this subject as I guess I’ll have to justify my assessment now.


  1. I teach and assess the same way you do! I just spent the day marking math tests and have 4 pages of typed feedback for my students. I know which students I need to work more with and which are ready to move on. I know that although a student got 67% on their test, there are some really good things happening and with a few small changes, will completely understand the concept. Otherwise, what does that percentage actually mean? Keep fighting the good fight! Your students will learn and grow so much more! And the parents might learn a thing or two as well.

  2. It's so good to see that I'm not alone! I've been teaching for 21 years and am astounded at the amount of teachers who won't budge on their old ideals. Don't you worry! I'm heading to 50 and become quite feisty!

  3. We have been moving to more formative assessment in our school. In fact, our new principal strongly encourages us to NOT give zeros as they do not assess true learning.

    Luckily most of my classes are in music so I've been in the "formative" world for a long time. I know how difficult it is to apply this to other subject areas.

    It is really tough to get the parents to understand this new way of assessment.

    Good luck!