Monday, September 19, 2011

What's the point of assessment?

This was written by David Didau who is a Head of English at Priory Community School. David blogs here and tweets here.

by David Didau
Came across an interesting challenge by @purposeducation –#500words campaign, This week the topic is #purposedassess, so here goes…
Everyone knows that there’s two different types of assessment, right? There’s summative assessment which is all about finding out whether students have learnt everything they’ve been taught. This is the kind of assessment that the media reports on and which schools are judged on. GCSEs, SATs, A levels etc.
Then there’s formative assessment, or Assessment for Learning as its been rebranded. This is all about finding out what kind of progress students are making. This is (hopefully) what goes on in classrooms day in day out. If this isn’t what’s happening then frankly, I despair. Research (check on Dylan William’s Inside the Black Box) clearly shows that formatively assessing students’ work is the single most important thing you can do as a teacher.
The point of summative assessment is to classify and make judgements on people and institutions. Obviously this is important, but what happens is that we fall into the trap of ignoring anything we can’t measure. As Einstein said, not everything that counts can be counted. Most education systems seem to concentrate on a very narrow range of academic achievement and don’t value anyone who doesn’t succeed within this range. Sir Ken Robinson has a lot of very interesting things to say on this subject in his wonderful book The Element. He says that most education systems are designed to meet the needs of the Industrial Revolution and are failing the needs of the post-digital age where many of the children we are currently teaching will be doing jobs that have not yet been thought of using technologies that haven’t been invented. Summative assessment is all about trying to provided a fixed determination on what is good and whether we’ve achieved it. If you don’t meet the grade, you’re a failure.
Formative assessment, on the other hand, is all about finding out how individuals learn and tailoring future learning to ensure that their needs are met. It’s about giving students a toolkit to be able to make their own judgements on their progress and what they need to do to further improve. Assessment for learning allows students to take control of their education and encourages them to adopt a growth mindset: failure is a learning opportunity and lets teachers and students know what to concentrate on next.
Basically, the benefits of formative assessment can be summarised as:
  • Students learn more effectively
  • Students feel more involved in the schooling process and become less disaffected
  • Teaching is focused more effectively on the individual student
  • Positive effects may be particularly evident in the less able
  • Learning in the wider (not subject-specific) sense can be enhanced as students become more confident with taking risks.
So, what’s the point of assessment? Is to decide who has failed and who has succeed with a narrow and outdated educational paradigm? Or is it to hand young people the reins of their own learning and allow them to become the risk-taking, free-thinking, creative individuals we’ll need in the wide uncertain future?


  1. A few thoughts:

    1. I'm not sure I believe in the dichotomy between formative and summative. All learning is formative if it's life-long. All learning is summative, because it is the end, the stopping point thus far.

    2. We need to focus on what an assessment actually does rather than asking if it has a numerical metric.

    Case in point: a portfolio tells you what a student learned, why that student thinks it's important and how a student grew in the process. A concept map tells you what a student knows and how the concepts are connected to one another. A process reflection lets you know how a student solved a particular problem and why he or she chose a specific strategy. Ask the students to generate a series of questions and we begin to assess what student inquiry. Have students complete a meaningful project and we see the application and analysis of knowledge. All of those methods assess what a student learned.

    A multiple choice test tells you which option a child recognizes out of a list of options that might not actually represent the answer a child has. Thus it measures recognition rather than learning and what a child doesn't know rather than what a child knows. Add the guess factor and it becomes absurd.

  2. Thanks John, a few responses:

    1. Your pont that "all learning is summative, because it is the end, the stopping point thus far" is a bit meaningless. To summatively assess is to take a snapshot of learning in order to provide data. To formatively assess is to engage in dialogue with the learner in order for them to see how to make progress.
    2. Absolutely: if assessment is just used to create data there is no educational point to it. If however it is used diagnostically and in order to provide formative feedback then it is the single most effective thing any teacher can do.

    Your portfolio and process reflections are lovely examples of what could be great assessment for learning. The multiple choice test is, as you say, absurd: avoid it.

  3. Joe, I love the word "toolkit." Results-only learning is built on what I call a "feedback toolkit," which is various ways to provide the kind of formative assessment discussed in the article.

    Excellent stuff here; thanks for sharing.

  4. I would love to have us join a similar conversation over at the Cooperative Catalyst.



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