First, we must acknowledge three things about assessments:

  • We are not experts on testing, especially about when and how to assign scores or grades
  • The whole enterprise is fraught with questions of legitimacy and fairness
  • It is such an enormous part of formal schooling

The three of us dream of a teaching and learning setting where students are internally motivated to learn, move at a pace that is appropriately challenging for each student and receive something more like scout badges for demonstration of mastery in certain areas, rather than numerical scores. Until that day, we live and work in the real world and strive to measure student progress toward worthwhile goals in a meaningful way.

We also realize that every school and often every teacher has their own unique way of recording student scores. Therefore, we aim to keep a general stance that boils assessment down to a few essential points.

  • Learning best happens in a culture of continuous growth, where stumbles and missteps are expected.
  • We must provide opportunities for students to safely and non-punitively test out their initial understandings, notice what needs improvement and continue working until they get to a satisfactory level.
  • Students need constructive feedback that they can use to improve way before the end of a unit.

These essential elements are best realized in an environment where:

  • Teachers constantly collect non-evaluative evidence of student understanding
  • Students collect evidence of their own level of understanding
  • Students receive feedback that helps them to figure out what to do next

This process is frequently called formative assessment. The major difference between formative assessment and summative assessment is the timing. With formative assessments, it is understood that the learning process is ongoing and that students have opportunities to improve. A summative assessment indicates a sort of end point in the learning journey, most often at the end of a unit or semester.

Formative assessment has two important goals:

  1. Provide opportunities for growth
  2. Provide data that teachers and students can use to modify their behavior

A formative assessment should not simply say, “You are not at the learning goal yet.” It should indicate exactly where on the learning journey a student is, which habits or strategies the student is using that might be working or might need to be changed and give the student ideas for what to do next. It also provides information the teacher can use to change the course of instruction. If a teacher notices that the majority of students have not grasped a concept according to his or her original timeline in the unit plan, the teacher needs to modify the unit plan and try something else.

This is where differentiation is super useful. Once a teacher has collected non-evaluative evidence on student progress, he or she can tailor instruction to where students are along the learning journey.

Should we use formative scores in a summative evaluation of the unit? Dr. Robert Marzano provides guidance on determining summative scores in his book, Formative Assessment and Standards-Based Grading. We believe what’s most important is the classroom culture – that students believe it is safe and expected to take intellectual risks, stumble and get back up again. Whatever method you use for scoring, be sure the overall culture it builds is one of growth and behavior change for both students and teachers based on the data collected.