Tagged: assessment design


Six Myths of Summative Assessment

Despite decades of research on sound assessment practices, misunderstandings and myths still abound. In particular, the summative purpose of assessment continues to be an aspect where opinions, philosophies, and outright falsehoods can take on a life of their own and hijack an otherwise thoughtful discourse about the most effective and efficient processes.

Assessment is merely the means of gathering of information about student learning (Black, 2013). We either use that evidence formatively through the prioritization of feedback and the identification of next steps in learning, or we use it summatively through the prioritization of verifying the degree to which the students have met the intended learning goals. Remember, it is the use of assessment evidence that distinguishes the formative form the summative.

The level of hyperbole that surrounds summative assessment, especially on social media, must stop. It’s not helpful, it’s often performative, and is even sometimes cynically motivated to simply attract followers, likes, and retweets. Outlined below are my responses to six of the most common myths about summative assessment. These aren’t the only myths, of course, but these are the six most common that seem to perpetuate and the six that we have to undercut if we are to have authentic, substantive, and meaningful conversations about summative assessment.

Myth 1: “Summative assessment has no place in our 21st century education system”

While the format and substance of assessments can evolve, the need to summarize the degree to which students have met the learning goals (independent of what those goals are) and report to others (e.g., parents) will always be a necessary of any education system in any century. Whether it’s content, skills, or 21st century competencies, the requirement to report will be ever-present.

However, it’s not just about being required; we should welcome the opportunity to report on student successes because it’s important that parents and even our larger community or the general public understand the impact we’re having on our students. If we started looking at the reporting process as a collective opportunity to demonstrate how effective we’ve been at fulfilling our mission then a different mindset altogether about summative assessment may emerge. It’s easy to become both insular and hyperbolic about summative assessment but using assessment evidence for the summative purpose is part of a balanced assessment system. Cynical caricatures of summative assessment detract from meaningful dialogue.

Myth 2: “Summative assessments are really just formative assessments we choose to count toward grade determination.”

Summative assessment often involves the repacking of standards for the purpose of reaching the full cognitive complexity of the learning. Summative assessment is not just the sum of the carefully selected parts; it’s the whole in its totality where the underpinnings are contextualized.

A collection of ingredients is not a meal. It’s a meal when all of those ingredients are thoughtfully combined. The ingredients are necessary to isolate in preparation; we need to know what ingredients are necessary and their quantity. But it’s not a meal until the ingredients are purposefully combined to make a whole.

Unpacking standards to identify granular underpinnings is necessary to create a learning progression toward success. We unpack standards for teaching (formative assessment) but we repack standards for grading (summative assessment). Isolated skills are not the same thing as a synthesized demonstration of learning. Reaching the full cognitive complexity of the standards often involves the combination of skills in a more authentic application, so again, pull apart for instruction, but pull back together for grading.

Myth 3: “Summative assessment is a culminating test or project at the end of the learning.”

While it can be, summative assessment is really a moment in time where a teacher examines the preponderance of evidence to determine the degree to which the students have met the learning goals or standard; it need not be limited to an epic, high stakes event at the end. It can be a culminating test or project as those would provide more recent evidence, but since we know some students need longer to learn, there always needs to be a pathway to recovery in that these culminating events don’t become disproportionately pressure packed and one-shot deals.

Thinking of assessment as a verb often helps. We have, understandably, come to see assessment as a noun – and they often are – but it is crucial that teachers expand their understanding of assessment to know that all of the evidence examined along the way also matters; evidence is evidence. Examining all of the evidence to determine student proficiency along a few gradations of quality (i.e., a rubric) is not only a valid process, but is one that should be embraced.

Myth 4: “Give students a grade and the learning stops.”

This causal relationship has never been established in the research. While it is true that grades and scores can interfere with a student’s willingness to keep learning, that reaction is not automatic. The nuances of whether the feedback was directed to the learning or the learner matters. Avraham Kluger & Angelo DeNisi (1996) emphasized the importance of student responses to feedback as the litmus test for determining whether feedback was effective.

There are no perfect feedback strategies but there are more favorable responses. If we provide a formative score alongside feedback, and the students reengage with the learning and attempts to increase their proficiency then, as the expression goes, no harm, no foul. If they disengage from the learning then clearly there is an issue to be addressed. But again, despite the many forceful assertions made on social media and in other forums, that relationship is not causal.

Again, context and nuance matters, especially when it comes to the quality of feedback. Remember, when it comes to feedback, substance matters more than form. Tom Guskey (2019) submits that had the Ruth Butler (1988) study, the one so widely cited to support this assertion that grades stop learning, examined the impact of grades that were criterion-referenced and learning focused versus ego-based feedback toward the learner (as in you need to work a little harder) then the results of those studies may have been quite different.

The impact in those studies was disproportionate to lower achieving students so common sense would dictate that if you received a low score and were told something to the effect of, “You need to work harder” or “This is a poor effort” that a student would likely want to stop learning. But a low score alongside a “now let’s work on” or “here’s what’s next” comment could produce a different response.

Myth 5: “Grades are arbitrary, meaningless, and subjective.”

Grades will be as meaningful or as meaningless as the adults make them; their existence is not the issue. Grades will be meaningful when they are representative of a gradation of quality derived from clear criteria articulated in advance. What some call subjective is really professional judgment. Judging quality against the articulated learning goals and criteria is our expertise at work.

Pure objectivity is the real myth. Teachers decide what to assess, what not to assess, the question stems or prompts, the number of questions, the format, the length, etc. We use our expertise to decide what sampling of learning provides the clearest picture. It is an erroneous goal to think one can eliminate all teacher choice or judgment from the assessment process. During one of our recent #ATAssessment chats on Twitter, Ken O’Connor reminded participants that the late, great Grant Wiggins often said: (1) We shouldn’t use subjective pejoratively and (2) The issue isn’t subjective or objective; the issue is whether our professional judgments are credible and defensible.

Myth 6: “Students should determine their own grades; they know better than us.”

Students should definitely be brought inside the process of grade determination; even asked to participate and understand how evidence is synthesized. But the teacher is the final arbiter of student learning; that is our expertise at work. This claim might sound like student empowerment but it marginalizes teacher expertise. Are we really saying a student’s first experience is greater than a teacher’s total experience? Again, bring them inside the process, give them the full experience, but don’t diminish your expertise while doing so.
This does not have to be a zero-sum game; more student involvement need not lead to less teacher involvement. This is about expansion within the process to include students along every step of the way; however, our training, expertise, and experience matter in terms of accurately determining student proficiency. Students and parents are not the only users of assessment evidence. Many important decisions both in and out of school depend on the accuracy of what is reported about student learning which means teacher must remain disproportionately involved in the summative process.

Combating these myths is important because there continues to be an oversimplified narrative that vilifies summative assessment as all things evil when it comes to our assessment practices. That mindset, assertion, or narrative is not credible. Not to mention, it’s naïve and really does reveal a lack of understanding of how a balanced assessment system operates within a classroom.

The overall point here is that we need grounded, honest, and reasoned conversations about summative assessment that are anchored in the research, not some performative label or hollow assertion that we defend at all costs through clever turns of phrases and quibbles over semantics.

Black, P. (2013). Formative and summative aspects of assessment: Theoretical and research foundations
in the context of pedagogy. In J. H. McMillan (Ed.), SAGE handbook of research on classroom assessment (pp. 167–178). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

Butler, R. (1988). Enhancing and undermining intrinsic motivation: The effects of task- involving
and ego-involving evaluation on interest and performance. British Journal of Educational
Psychology,58(1), 1-14.

Guskey, T., 2019. Grades versus Feedback: What does the research really tell us?.
[Blog] Thomas R. Guskey & Associates, Available at: [Accessed 30 Nov. 2021].

Kluger, A., & DeNisi, A. (1996). The effects of feedback interventions on performance: A
historical review, a meta-analysis, and a preliminary feedback intervention theory. Psychological Bulletin, 119(2), 254–284.



A Tone of Influence and Possibility

Let me start by saying the most obvious statement. The past year and a half has been incredibly hard. For everyone. The summer for me is usually a time for reflection, for finishing incomplete to-do lists, and for getting excited about the next year. I do not mind admitting that the last one was pretty hard for me this year. Watching (and re-watching) some episodes of Ted Lasso has helped a little. Reading some of my favorite authors has helped a lot. I found myself revisiting Essential Assessment: Six Tenets for Bringing Hope, Efficacy, and Achievement to the Classroom this summer and revelling again in the authors’ brilliant and elegant ways of describing assessment (and not just because they’re three of my favorite people!)

So I found myself reading the Accurate Interpretation chapter of Essential Assessment, partially to look for some nuggets to share with the educators in my own district. I came across a sentence that is rather perfect for now, “Educators who believe all students can learn deliberately adopt a tone of influence and possibility as a means to promote learning, especially in the toughest situations.” (p. 67) This sentence seems perfectly suited for the 2021-2022 school year and beyond.

Keeping the focus
As educators, we are always working to keep the focus on the things that we can control. There are so many things that can impact a student’s success and many of them do not have anything to do with us. But the educators that truly believe in their hearts that all students can learn are deeply focused on the many, many things that we can control.

One incredibly powerful category of the things we can control is how we use the information that we gain from our assessments. Are we using the data that we have to help us change our actions which we can control, or to blame our students or situations that we cannot control? Do we talk about that data in ways that validate our own influence as educators and reveal the possibilities in how we can respond? Do we see data as a way to build our self-efficacy and our collective efficacy or just another challenge that cannot be met?

In data lies opportunity
In this school year, we should all be looking for ways to talk about our data that communicates how we can leverage that data to influence our actions in creating opportunities for our students. Our language should reflect both our belief that all students can learn and that we are committed to do the things to make that happen.

One of the biggest lessons that I have learned through the years is that there is nothing wrong with starting small. Find an area in the data and work together to address it. We often beat ourselves up for not doing everything all at once and perfectly. Give yourself and your teams permission to take one thing at a time to build knowledge and confidence.

This same perfect and elegant phrase, a tone of influence and possibility, should be applied to how we talk about learning with our students. We have all been inundated with deficit messages about how students and their learning has been impacted by the pandemic. I am encouraged that many of those messages are now focusing on acceleration and not just remediation. We need to continue to make sure that our language emphasizes the strengths in our students as well as the opportunities we are planning to address any concerns. Our assessment data should help students see where they are in relation to that learning goal and our actions should help students see that there is a way for them to reach that goal.

Far-reaching impact
There is much that we can control and one of the most significant things we can control is our language and our reactions. If we move forward with a belief that we can use the information we gain about our students to create better possibilities for our students, the impacts will go far beyond our own psyche. We can also use a quote from another of my idols, Ted Lasso, “Doing the right thing is never the wrong thing,” which feels like it was custom-made for educators today as well.

Erkens, C., Schimmer, T., Dimich Vagle, N. 2017. Essential assessment: Six tenets for bringing hope, efficacy, and achievement to the classroom. Solution Tree Press.


Formative or Per-formative: Using Student Evidence of Learning in the Right Ways

If your classroom was to become (or currently is) a picture for a social media post, how many likes would it get? How many retweets?

In truth, to how many of you would that even matter? What if your principal or superintendent suddenly broadcasts a message saying, “Everyone, stop what you’re doing and take a picture of your learning environment right now!” Would you be eager to share or completely mortified? I can admit, at various moments throughout my career, I have been on both ends of that continuum…and everyplace in between! Read more


Connect the Dots

I apologize for using a rather trite metaphor for the title of this blog, particularly since I never really cared for the dot-to-dot pages that would occasionally appear in my coloring books as a child.  I never saw the purpose. I could tell what the picture was going to be and I didn’t need to scour the page to find the next number to make it appear.

As an educator the idea of connecting things has become much more profound to me. Watching the students in my English classes make connections between what we were reading and what was happening in the world were some of my favorite teacher moments. The flip side of that was also enlightening to me. As a principal of a school with many different academic support programs for students I remember a conversation with a student who told me that she didn’t “do reading” when she went to a classroom to work with a teacher who was supporting English Learners, even though I had just been in that room and seen a lesson that was explicitly planned to connect to the general education classroom. The student didn’t see the connection and that was the problem. Read more


Uncovering Implicit Bias in Assessment, Feedback and Grading

Education is a noble profession. It is a profession that aims to cultivate diverse thinkers and aspires to nurture personal growth. It is a profession that can lift humanity’s spirits and help humankind strive to be the best version of itself—the “great equalizer of the conditions of men,” as Horace Mann famously stated in the 19th century. However, even with great people, a worthy goal, and an admirable vision, the opposite can often be the case.

Unfortunately, education can also be the great unequalizer, where personal biases can inform practice and policy development, stifle student growth, enforce discriminatory policies, and even socially isolate students. According to some researchers, implicit educator biases may contribute to a racial achievement gap; precisely, the negative impact of teacher assumptions on students’ ability based on race, culture, or values (van den Bergh et al. 2010). Unknown to an educator, these personal biases may create imagery of an ideal student, which is often seen through a white privilege lens because of society’s tendency toward whiteness, distorting our interactions with students of color.

Without social awareness and continuous self-monitoring, educators may let their implicit bias become an influential factor in their pedagogy, influencing everything from assessment to grading. This blog will discuss how personal biases can appear in our teaching and learning practices if educators are not diligent. I will focus on three of the more considerable teaching and learning modes: assessment, feedback, and grading.

Assessment Bias

Without attention, teachers may create assessments that reflect their values and experiences and ignore those of their students. The teacher may use language that they are more familiar with in their queries or create prompts influenced by their personal experiences. Ultimately students may find it hard to relate to the questions—potentially leaving some students unable to perform to the best of their abilities. For assessments to be less biased, a teacher must consider all backgrounds, ethnicities, genders, and identities to ensure that their lived experience isn’t the only one represented on an assessment.

By being more introspective when developing assessments, teachers can lessen the chance they produce a personally irrelevant assessment for their students. The impact of this irrelevancy could be low student performance, disinterest in the task, and even apathy toward school.

To help teachers be more aware of their biases when creating assessments, they can ask themselves the following questions as they develop questions:

  1. Does the assessment give the sense that the teacher has unwavering support and is a partner in a student’s success?
  2. Are the questions seeking to understand the student or judge them?
  3. Does the teacher draw on the students’ life situations, interests, and curiosities when creating problems/prompts? – Adapted from Tomlinson (2015).

Microaggressions in Feedback 

Suppose we ignore our implicit biases when speaking with students. In that case, we run the risk of putting both parties into what social psychologist Albert Bandura calls “a downward course of mutual discouragement” (Bandura 1997, 234). A student’s reaction to deficit-based feedback may result in the teacher reacting in kind. Once this cycle starts, a student’s self-belief is now at risk.

Microaggressions and subtle discriminations can exist in the feedback process, and when they do, they may severely limit feedback acceptance.

Teachers can limit bias in their feedback to use the student’s thinking to grow the student. For example, let’s look at the following examples:

Example A

Feedback that Uses Teacher Thinking: You didn’t include [these details] about [person] in your essay. Try [these words].

Feedback that Uses Student Thinking: Tell me more about these words [here]. I am interested to know why you think [this word] didn’t work instead? Oh, okay, that would work. You should add what you just said to your paragraph, and it was perfect.

Example B

Feedback that Uses Teacher Thinking: When I write, I try and think about [detail]. Remember when I taught you the three-step process? No? The one that is in your textbook? That’s the most effective process.

Feedback that Uses Student Thinking: What did you think about when you wrote [this]? Seems like that interests you? Yeah, I can see you are passionate about [that]. What are the first three things you did when you wrote [this]? That is an interesting place to start. Could I convince you to start here? No? Okay, that makes sense. Have to make this work for you.

Example C

Feedback that Uses Teacher Thinking: In this graph, I would start [here] because this information is important. Has anyone heard of the [rhyme name] to remember the key features of a graph? No? Oh, this helped me a lot.

Feedback that Uses Student Thinking: In this graph, what information did you think was essential for you to begin this problem? I’m surprised to hear you say that because yesterday you said something different, what changed? Interesting, I saw you smile as you were talking. Why? Yeah, I agree you are getting this concept more. Are you using any strategies to help you learn this? Yes. Well, [that strategy] is undoubtedly helping you.

These scenarios are fictional, but the point here is teachers should always be aware of their language. Otherwise, they can inadvertently make the student feel like an unequal and devalued student in the class and even the school. In short, words matter.

Race Bias in Grading Practices

Teachers must judge student performance fairly and accurately. It is our professional duty. Inaccurate judgments have the potential not only to alter grades but could negatively affect teacher-student relationships, distort a student’s self-concept, or reduce opportunities to learn (Cohen and Steele 2002). One factor that can lead to a misrepresentation of a grade is teacher race and ethnicity bias. A student’s racial or ethnic group, socioeconomic class, or gender can substantially bias a teacher’s judgment of student performance. Any internalized racial biases can activate stereotypes and lead teachers to utilize discriminatory performance evaluations (Wood and Graham 2010).

For example, several studies found substantial differences in students’ performance judgments from various racial subgroups when the teacher subconsciously subscribed to the general stereotype that African American and Latino students generally don’t perform as well as their White and Asian counterparts (Ready and Wright 2011).

Different minority statuses can affect teacher perceptions in performance evaluation, leading to inaccurate grades, potentially harming students’ perception of their academic experience. (Ogbu and Simons 1998). In other words, students may feel like school is insignificant, unsupportive, or even harmful.

To help lessen the likelihood that implicit personal bias influences the grading process, teachers can democratize the grading process. They can use learning evidence instead of points and employ a modal interpretation of gradebook scores instead of averages. They can use a skills-focused curriculum instead of a content-focused one. Perhaps most important, they can involve the student in the grading process by infusing more self-evaluation moments into their instruction.

School leaders should explore ways to evaluate pedagogical practices through a racial and equity lens and observe classroom interactions between teachers and students. School leaders should also continue training on white privilege and its influence over the status quo, and teachers should evaluate student performance to judge its fairness and accuracy.

The Work Ahead

Although we may feel like we are objective and rational people, we all have biases.  We all have values, beliefs, and assumptions that help us make sense of what is happening in our lives and guide our interactions with others. For the most part, these values, beliefs, and assumptions guide us in positive and productive directions, but the interplay between these same values and social interactions can produce implicit biases that distort our decisions, perspectives, and actions. We must notice, monitor, and manage these distortions to achieve a goal of racial equity in school and life. If we don’t, we are at risk of our unconscious biases harming our pedagogy, our relationships with students, and our perception of their needs.

 

Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York, NY: W. H. Freeman & Co, Publishers.

Cohen, G. L., & Steele, C. M. (2002). A barrier of mistrust: How negative stereotypes affect cross-race mentoring. In J. Aronson (Ed.), Improving academic achievement: Impact of psychological factors on education (pp. 303–327). San Diego, CA: Academic.

Ogbu, J. U., & Simons, H. D. (1998). Voluntary and involuntary minorities: A cultural-ecological theory of school performance with some implications for education. Anthropology and Education Quarterly, 29(2), 155-188.

Ready, D.D., & Wright, D. L. (2011). Accuracy and Inaccuracy in Teachers’ Perceptions of Young Children’s Cognitive Abilities: The Role of Child Background and Classroom Context. https://doi.org/10.3102/0002831210374874

Tenenbaum, H. R., & Ruck, M. D. (2007). Are teachers’ expectations different for racial minorities than for European American students? A meta-analysis. Journal of Educational Psychology, 99(2), 253–273.

“Teaching Up” – Carol Ann Tomlinson: Teaching for Excellence in Academically Diverse Classrooms (2015).

van den Bergh, L., Denessen, E., Hornstra, L., Voeten, M., & Holland, R.W., (2010). The implicit prejudiced attitudes of teachers: Relations to teacher expectations and the ethnic achievement gap. American Educational Research Journal, 47, 497–527.

Wood, D., & Graham, S. (2010). “Why race matters: social context and achievement motivation in African American youth.” In Urdan, T. and Karabenick, S. (Eds.) The Decade Ahead: Applications and Contexts of Motivation and Achievement (Advances in Motivation and Achievement, Vol. 16 Part B) (pp. 175-209). Emerald Group Publishing Limited, Bingley.


#Winning: Anticipating Errors as Preventative Instruction

I was recently working with a team to develop common formative assessments, and they were having some difficulty generating appropriate questions and tasks for the standards being addressed in this particular unit of study. 

We talked through the standards, as well as the learning targets, and brainstormed assessments methods to match the various elements of learning required for students to master the concept. Still, we were in a pause. 

So, I decided to change course. 

Instead of further belaboring the learning targets and what student proficiency would need to look like, I engaged the team to consider what was preventing student learning in the first place. Read more


Comments: 1

The Power of ‘This Means That’ in Creating Student Investment

What exactly does a strong critique of someone else’s work look like? How is it the same and different from a critique of one’s own work?

When do readers identify the main idea of a text? Which processes lead to the identification of a main idea?

What does a good data analysis look and sound like? What are the critical components of a strong analysis?

These are just some of the questions I have witnessed teacher teams wrestle with in the last few weeks of collaborative assessment work. The answers to these questions and others like them serve as the bridge between teacher assessment design work and student ownership of learning goals. When we explore goals in explicit ways, we can begin to imagine how we might explain complex skills like critiquing, identifying main idea, and analyzing data to our learners. We have to make these concepts tangible and accessible if we are going to nurture student investment and hope.

Read more

Comments: 3

Until We Meet Again: Jumpstarting the Impact of Common Assessments with Post-Assessment Routines

When I chat with teachers about the power of common formative assessments, the conversations are generally positive. Almost universally, teachers see the value of identifying whether students are learning the concepts and skills that they are targeting in their instruction. They conceptually agree with the practice and value the process of working with a collaborative team to design the assessments and analyze the results. Read more


Comments: 2

Before We Get to Work: Foundational Questions of Quality Assessment Design

Think of a recent assessment design conversation you had with a colleague. What aspect of the assessment process did you discuss? Did you consider which standards to assess? Did you talk about how many questions, or tasks, were needed to determine student mastery? Or, did you examine the content that you would evaluate?

As the director of assessment at a large public high school in the Midwest, I engage in these assessment conversations often with teachers and collaborative teams. While we discuss all aspects of the assessment process, the most common question I hear from teachers is, “What should my assessments look like?” Read more