“The strongest of all warriors are these two – Time and Patience.” Leo Tolstoy
“There is more to life than simply increasing its speed.” Mahatma Gandhi
I was working with a group of teachers this summer when I was presented with a challenge that has since become a subject of personal and professional consideration: timing of summative assessments. More specifically, these colleagues shared that while formative assessment makes sense, and self-assessment surely leads to strong learning outcomes, it is not feasible to do these things while still complying with their district’s mandate to enter two summative assessments per week for each course of study. I will admit that I was perplexed by this requirement and I’ve spent much time since then both encountering similar mandates and considering the implications. The discussion this summer led me to think deeply about whether or not there was a win-win in this conundrum. Is there a way to engage in the essential work of formative assessment, feedback, and differentiated instruction, while still gathering enough summative evidence for a twice-a-week standard to make a professional judgment about learning?
In order to explore the likelihood of a win-win, I had to unpack a few things. Let’s start with my questions:
- Is everyone involved clear about the difference between summative and formative assessment?
- Why mandate summative assessment volume and timing? What is at the root of this practice?
- Who is served by this frequency of summative assessment?
- How does summatively assessing students this regularly impact their learning?
- How does this level of summative assessment impact teachers and their ability to be instructionally agile?
I am quite sure the teachers with whom I was working this summer understood the difference between formative and summative assessment—we had just spent two days exploring this very topic. However, there is a possibility that the people who established the mandated volume and timing of summative assessments do not share our understanding. To review: 1) formative assessment refers to actionable assessment practices that strategically gather information about developing knowledge and skills necessary for standard proficiency, so we can respond to the information gathered and positively impact teaching and learning 2) summative assessment refers to the valid and reliable professional judgment we make after collecting learner artifacts, which demonstrate degrees of standards-based understanding and skill.
If everyone involved in the mandate shares this understanding, then perhaps there are additional beliefs that have not been stated. Perhaps there is a belief that summative assessments could be re-assessed later? Or that the weekly summative assessments could be weighted minimally? In these scenarios, the two summative assessments each week could actually function more like formatives over time, as old evidence disappears and new evidence replaces it. If this is the case, then this practice’s clarity of purpose is in question for the teachers who enact it. This leads to my next set of questions: Why was this decision made? What is at the root of it? Who is it serving?
In speaking with many educators, I have concluded that the decision to mandate the number and timing of summative assessments is often accompanied by two additional critical factors: 1) The grade book is open to parents and students 2) There is a desire to communicate more frequently the progress of students through the grade book. In other words, there is a desire to enforce accountability to and communication with stakeholders through this practice.
If this is the case, I believe there could be several assumptions at work. The first is that the best way to communicate learning is through the grade book, and yet we know that representing the robust story of learning through the use of a number, letter, or code is often problematic. The second assumption is that the grade book is the vehicle parents would choose in order to learn about their children and will therefore frequently check the grade book (twice a week or more). This may or may not be true, and perhaps the solution is to ask parents, after providing several alternatives. The third assumption is that volume is synonymous with accuracy; the more often we summatively assess and report, the clearer the picture. This is not the case if we are summatively measuring learning on anything but the full intent of the standards. Reporting achievement on “bits and pieces” of learning can give the illusion of strength where there is challenge or challenge where there is strength. The final assumption is that assessing small pieces of learning is the same as making a professional judgment after examining a body of evidence; the pieces always add up to an understanding of the whole. We know that one of the most important acts a teacher completes in the name of summative assessment is making a professional judgment about the degree of skill and understanding a student possesses in relation to standards. In order to do this, we ask learners to synthesize, create, and apply complex concepts. Often, this happens after much practice and feedback. Reporting this too early and on pieces less complex than the intent of the standard gives an inaccurate representation of learning and growth.
The challenge with these assumptions is that they then lead to actions (mandates of the frequency and volume of summative assessment) that override accuracy, clear communication, nurturing of hope, and professional decision-making. In other words, communication and accountability are trumping everything else and this may mean that what we are communicating is in no way reflective of the actual story of learning. The frequency of our communication may actually misrepresent proficiency and undermine our efforts to be more clear.
Nicole Dimich-Vagle (2015) clarifies that, “Using assessment well means capitalizing on the information collected and using those insights to facilitate learning and foster hope for students.” (P.2) I would argue that using assessment well also means fostering hope for teachers and families. In order to understand learning and support and nurture its growth, we have to be clear about the learning we are measuring. We have to ensure that when we collect artifacts of learning, we are collecting those that represent the fullness of our standards. We must ensure that learners have plenty of time to practice, reflect, adjust, and achieve. We have to ensure the same things for teachers. And we need to communicate the fullness of this journey to parents in a way that is clear, optimistic, and authentic. When we share assessment data that is rushed or incomplete, we can muddy the communication process and undo the very things we are trying to achieve. Summatively assessing students over-frequently can undermine hope and risk-taking. It can make everything learners do high-stakes. Timing has to be balanced with student need or we are not supporting true learning. We do not want to tie the hands of teachers, who will struggle to find time to offer practice, feedback, and adjust their own instruction to meet learner needs when they are always summatively assessing. If we do, the very things we are truly hoping to achieve within our schools are diminished.
One way to begin to imagine a win-win is to think of our communication with parents as involving a spectrum of methods as opposed to a single grade book. Tomlinson (2005) expands, “Experts in the area of grading suggest that society develop ‘reporting systems’ rather than only ‘report cards’ as means of conveying multiple messages about a student’s learning.” (p.268) If we can ask ourselves what we need to say to families and learners, and when we need to say it, then we can begin to develop a system that allows us to communicate concerns and celebrations quickly and with a fullness and attention to relationship that befits the human work we do. We can make phone calls, send emails, engage in ePortfolios, utilize Twitter and various other methods to share the story of learning. If we want to share progress, we can do so without misrepresenting achievement.
Summative assessment is a critical stage of learning. There is certainly a time to confirm degrees of understanding; in fact, it is our system’s professional responsibility to do so. However, we need to assess thoughtfully, for the right reasons, at a time that supports learning. To do otherwise would be harmful to learners and the educators who devote their days serving the mission of learning.
Dimich Vagle, N. (2015) Design in 5: Essential Phases to Create Engaging Assessment Practice. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.
Tomlinson, C.A. (2005) Grading and differentiation: Paradox or good practice? Theory into practice, 44, 3. Columbus. pp. 262-270.