Educators across the country are sharing how this school year was far more difficult than the previous two years during the pandemic. There have been many pivots (I know, I know . . . that is like a four-letter word), many shifts, and many concerns raised as students return to school and socialize with peers they have not seen for a long time. This was a year like no other. As it comes to an end, educators have an opportunity to take a breath and reflect on what worked well and areas in which to seek growth. There is also an opportunity to think about going back to the basics with assessment practices. The pace of the year had many teachers juggling way too many responsibilities; summer brings time to reflect and opportunities for collaboration. This time allows teams to dig into the skills and knowledge students struggled with the most and design formative and summative assessment practices that align with the standards. Read more
Tagged: assessment planning
Building Up or Breaking Down: How Assessment Impacts a Culture of Learning
“Whether we plan it or not, culture will happen. Why not create the culture we want?”
—Carmine Gallo, The Storyteller’s Secret
Have you ever started a new book and just . . . lost interest? Have you ever started a book and found yourself so enthralled that you could hardly put it down? Each school year, educators have the opportunity to write a new story—and the beginning of that story is critical. No matter the setting (face-to-face, virtual, blended), many educators begin with a similar focus: creating a culture of learning. Time dedicated to this work varies. Some educators feel the pressure of beginning content and spend minimal time focused on culture. Some believe the work of culture never truly ends. Regardless of where you fall on this spectrum, do you know the impact your assessment practices have on the culture you are trying to create? Read more
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
Guskey, T., 2019. Grades versus Feedback: What does the research really tell us?.
[Blog] Thomas R. Guskey & Associates, Available at:
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.
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.
Shift Away from Learning Loss and Focus on Relevant Assessments that Emphasize Creativity and Critical Thinking
There is a buzz in education circles and districts raising concerns about the significant learning loss affecting students after the absence of in-person learning and the multiple shifts between learning models. It is important to shift away from this idea of learning loss, as it focuses on the deficits of students and does not recognize the strengths and assets students developed during the pandemic. The Spencer Foundation and The Learning Policy Institute created six principles to consider when addressing this concept of learning loss. One pillar identified is to focus on creative inquiry forms of learning. This was further explained as:
“Learning environments can engage in disciplinary and interdisciplinary inquiries through a variety of contexts and by using artistic forms of expression. All students deserve the opportunity to be treated as creative thinkers and makers. Learning should be an opportunity for play and authentic meaning-making, with the focus on how students are learning instead of drilling content in isolation. Children should be inspired, their curiosity encouraged, and their dreams fed. Research demonstrates that such environments provide rich opportunities for deep learning. Such forms of learning can support meeting multiple learning goals and create opportunities for students to imagine and contribute to thriving post-pandemic worlds that serve themselves and their communities” (Bang et al., 2021).
This report started the wheels turning in my brain. Summer is the time for educators to step away, refresh, and reflect. It is also the time when intentional and rich collaborative conversations take place around curriculum and assessment among teaching teams. They may be formal or informal conversations but what is so powerful is the creativity that comes from these collective voices coming together.
What if this understanding of creative inquiry was shared with teams in advance of planning together? Would this guide teams to think differently about formative and summative assessments? Would it spark new ways to allow students to show their knowledge? Instead of defaulting to traditional assessment practices such as multiple choice, a short essay, or matching, the sky’s the limit in the ways that teams can collaborate to create assessments that are meaningful, relevant to their students’ own lived experiences, and allow students to show what they know. Stephanie Woldem, a brilliant math teacher in a south Minneapolis urban high school, asked students to analyze tables of data showing numbers of homicides, assaults, and arrests. She asked students to find out which police precincts had the most positive interactions with police compared to arrests and crimes. (Star Tribune, Mattos, 2015). Interactions between the community and police were a growing concern. Woldem was very aware of these concerns among the students and created a relevant learning task with an assessment in her freshman algebra class. Policing impacted many of the young scholars in the community around the school. Woldem knew that having a deeper understanding of the data and helping the students make meaning of the data was far more impactful than practicing a few algebra problems.
Bringing lessons to life
The teachers at this school also asked students to participate in data tours, using relevant city data and students created questions to dig into the data. Often they came away with more questions than answers when analyzing the information. What this teacher learned is that in a subject matter such as math where students struggled to make meaning and find relevance, math jumped alive for these students. The teacher found a way to use content and assessments to motivate, engage and inspire the students to become critical thinkers using the data in ways they have not done before.
Through understanding what is going on in the lives of her students and the community in which the students live, the teacher helped them develop the skills of critical and creative thinking. The three great assessment gurus which taught me much of what I know about assessments today, Cassie Erkens, Tom Schimmer and Nicole Dimich, wrote a book called Growing Tomorrow’s Citizens. In the text they outlined critical competencies necessary for success in a changing world. Two of these tenets that Woldem also used in her math classroom were critical thinking and creative thinking. While the authors argue that all seven are critical for deeper and more meaningful learning for student’s today, I want to focus on critical thinking and creative thinking when developing assessments for students.
The authors identify the skill of critical thinking and to also consider the dispositions or how to help students behave as critical thinkers. Students need opportunities to engage in practicing this skill prior to providing evidence of their learning through a formative or summative assessment. As did the math teacher, “it is preferred that learners emerge as partners and key decision makers in their own experiences, allowing them to create relevance while exploring those areas and topics that naturally pique their curiosity” (Erkens et al., p.77). Inquiry and project based learning can be valuable examples of helping learners to practice these skills. As teachers working in collaborative teams in the summer, how can teams reimagine a unit summative assessment to build in critical thinking skills in a way that is relevant for the students in their school community?
The second of seven critical competencies is creativity. Erkens et al., state that “creativity is the backbone of innovation, and humanity thrives on innovation; indeed, it is what improves the quality of living across all age and continents” (144). Creativity may be difficult to measure and far too often students do not have an opportunity to imagine, invent or develop original ideas. Schools are looking for right and wrong to prepare students for standardized tests, which also do not assess creativity. Thus, teaching this critical competency is left behind. A mentor once said to me what is measured is what identifies the values of an organization. If the school is only looking at standardized tests, then students often would not have experiences to produce or create and collaborate to develop new solutions. However, if educators were to ask employers what are the top skills they are looking for in employees, often creativity and developing new, innovative solutions rises to the top. Schools are not preparing students well for the skills they need in our ever-changing world. Again, as educators work together to develop new curriculum and assessments in the summer, consider embedding teaching the skills of creativity into units of study. Allow students an opportunity to practice these skills. In fact, work together to create new opportunities for students as you get your own creative juices flowing. One recommendation from Erkens et al., is to teach the creative process. Melissa Purtee came up with this visual to assist in helping educators understand the creative process.
One middle school classroom in a STEM school had a specific design course. The students were asked to design musical instruments that were required to make a noise at a certain level of frequency. The students spent time walking through each step of the creative design process. They kept journals documenting and reflecting on each stage of the design process. This was also used as a formative assessment for the teacher. The teacher read a few journal entries each day to get a grasp of how students were making sense of each step in relation to their instrument design. In the end, the students were asked to play the instrument. If the criteria was not met, the teacher provided feedback and the students were able to have another attempt, as failure and revision is a necessary part of the design process. However it is not necessary to have a separate course to teach creativity and this can be embedded into any course or subject matter. To further understand the creative process, visit go.SolutionTree.com/assessment for a free reproducible of a table called” Instructional Questions for Teaching the Creative Process”.
Growing tomorrow’s citizens is important to engage in relevant and meaningful assessments that tap into creativity and critical thinking. This aids in motivation and engagement for the learners when they find assessments where they can make personal connections to prior knowledge, new learning, and develop new skills. With an emphasis on creativity and critical thinking with assessment practices, this will aide in the acceleration of learning instead of focusing on this concept of learning loss. The time is now to engage in critical and creative thinking while collaborating with your own teams during the summer to develop authentic and relevant assessments that are meaningful for students.
Matos, Alejandro (2015, December 6). “South High teachers illustrate inequities through math.” The Star Tribune. www.startribune.com
Bang, Megan, et al. The Learning Policy Institute, 2021, Summer Learning and Beyond: Opportunities for Creating Equity.
Erkens, C. et al. Growing Tomorrow’s Citizens in Today’s Classrooms: Assessing 7 Critical Competencies. Solution Tree Press. 2019.
Purtee, M. “The Essential Framework for Teaching Creativity.” The Art of Education. 2017, theartofeducation.edu/2017/08/15/essential-framework-teaching-creativity/.
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
The Power of Common Formative Assessments
Many researchers have identified formative assessment as one of the more powerful practices to raise student achievement (Black & Wiliam, 1998; Hattie, 2009). When speaking of its power, we often compare formative assessment to summative assessment using metaphorical expressions. For example, formative assessment is like “tasting the soup before serving one’s guests,” or the “practice before the big game.” Others have described formative assessment as the rehearsal before the performance, or the “check-up before the autopsy.” Read more
Another Test? How to Plan Assessments So Students Can Learn
Ever feel like you are giving assessments all the time? Between the pretest, post-test, quizzes, district benchmarks, state interim assessments, or other nationally normed progress monitoring assessments, when is a student supposed to learn? When is a teacher supposed to teach? Is it possible to have too many assessments? Read more
What type of questions do we put on tests? Better yet, why?
While working recently with a high school mathematics team to write quality common assessments, I asked the teachers to bring in their previously used unit tests. They had already been giving common assessments for about three years as collaborative teams, so their unit assessments were in agreement. However, I noticed that every assessment item was multiple choice on every exam throughout the department.
When asking the algebra team about the reasoning behind only using multiple-choice items, I was told it was necessary in order to quickly analyze the data as a team and give results to students. When I asked what teachers or students did with the results, I was met with silence. When I asked how teachers and students learned from the common misconceptions shown on the exam—again, silence. Read more
Are Essential Standards a Part of the Assessment Process?
As I’ve worked with teams across the country in developing and using assessments, I’ve heard some interesting beliefs about essential standards (e.g., “We’re not allowed to do this in our district,” or “Our curriculum only requires us to teach the essential standards”). Comments like these have convinced me that there are lots of educators who have misconceptions about the first of the four essential questions we ask a collaborative team in a PLC to answer. That question is: “What do we want our students to know and do?” Read more