Thursday, January 7, 2010

Assessment Malpractice

Assessment is a hot topic in the teaching world, and I have noticed a real imbalance between the two different kinds of assessment. First, here are the two kinds:

Summative Assessment: This kind of assessment is done to assess a student's skills and knowledge after the learning has taken place. This is a judgement that traditionally takes place in the form of a grade or mark.

Formative Assessment: This kind of assessment is done while students are still learning. The teacher observes and interacts with students to (1) modify and adapt their instruction to better teach them and (2) provide information for students so that they may take that information and improve on their skills and knowledge.

Current trends in teacher professional development are tearing teachers in two different directions. Here's what I mean: When it comes to actually teaching students, teachers are encouraged to differentiate their instruction. Basically differentiate means that a teacher understands that no two children learn the same way and so the teacher will create mulitple paths for a student to take as they learn.

I have little to no problem with this current trend. The more teachers differentiate their instruction, the more students are likely to learn. Formative assessment flourishes with differentiated instruction. That's a good thing!

Here's the problem: teachers are also under more pressure than ever to show results on high-stakes standardized tests - and these tests are more than likely multiple choice.

Do you see the problem?

Teachers are being asked to differentiate their instruction but then forced to show high test scores on undifferentiated assessments.

Summative assessment can be done better, but we have to get away from our misguided obsession with standardization. We have to get away from our our perverted need for data that can be easily bar graphed or pie-charted. Children are more than data and learning is far too messy to try and average.

If we:
  • use a multiple choice assessment to assess a student
  • have student tests out with a lower proficiency than they actually possess
  • use that assessment to report on their learning
  • know the gross limitations involved with multiple choice assessments (which we do)

-this is a kind of educational malpractice-

Here's how this plays out in real life:

Little Johnny takes the test and scores poorly. The teacher sees Johnny's test score and says "wow, that's weird. I know Johnny gets this stuff better than that!" The teacher than proceeds to knowingly use an inaccurate assessment to report on Johnny's learning.

It's weird. The teacher knows better but has become a slave to the test and feels compelled to use a summative assessment that is masquerading as an accurate, objective depiction of Johnny's learning. This is sad.

In my classroom, I use formative assessment 99.9% of the time. I provide students with both differentiated instruction and differentiated assessment. Rather than my students learning the way I teach, I teach the way my students learn. And equally important - rather than forcing my students to fit my assessment needs, my assessments fit my students needs.


  1. Can you give examples of your formative assessments? How much objectivity is there? How do you communicate this to parents? What happens when you tell a parent that there child is not understanding the concepts? What level student are you teaching? What subjects(s)? Are they prepared for the next level of learning? For example, if they are in middle school are they prepared for the high school level? I ask these questions because we send our students to at least 10 different high schools which are mostly traditionally based. These high schools go on to send students to some of the best colleges in the nation. I don't know if it is a question of my assessment needs as much as how we as a society have set up a system of education with certain criteria that needs to be achieved. I also don't know if someone "knows" something if they don't study it and are responsible for knowing it.

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  3. Great post!
    I agree that formative assessment should be done the majority of the time in the classroom. Too often teachers get caught in the trap of the "mark economy" where students will only complete a task if it has a mark attached to it. Formative assessment is a richer and more meaningful way of improving student learning... which, if i'm not mistaken, is what education is for.
    Unfortunately i see many colleagues who judge their classroom success by the number of summative assessments they have. I assume that you only have a few major summative assessments that have been supported by numerous formative assessments. How do you convince other teachers to abandon the "mark economy" for more meaningful formative assessments?

  4. YES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  5. I totally agree with you. However, I feel like I'm in a unending circle of knowing what is right, and knowing what the students have in their future. I teach in an elementary school, and as long as there are provincial assessments and final exams in their future, I feel like I need to teach them how to study for and to take exams, yet I believe that assessment should be used FOR learning, not OF learning. Tough call. Excellent post.

  6. In Manitoba, the jargon of formative vs summative assessment has been switched to assessment for learning (meaning diagnostic assessment), assessment as learning (formative assessment) and assessment of learning (summative assessment). By thinking more broadly about assessment, as a teacher you can gather far more information about where your students are at and actually use assessment AS part of the process of teaching and learning.


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