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Monday, 17 March 2014

But... Thou Shall NOT… Use Formative Assessments...

... as Part of the Summative Grade

A few weeks ago I was working with a group of secondary teachers on ideas connected to our latest book, A Fresh Look at Grading and Reporting in High Schools. At one point there was a murmur in the group. When I inquired about the murmur some of the teachers said, “But, we were told, 'Thou shall NOT use formative assessments as part of the summative grade.’”

The notion of evidence of learning – and what makes good evidence – is key when it comes to summative assessment. After all, everything a student does, says, or creates is potentially evidence of learning. What counts? It is all about purpose. Are you considering the evidence of learning in a formative way – to inform instruction? Or, are you considering the evidence of learning to determine how well and how much a student has learned? It is about purpose.

The evidence – observations, conversations, and products – that is used to determine the summative grade depends on the teacher. It is a professional decision. In A Fresh Look at Grading and Reporting in High Schools, Sandra Herbst and I write about the entire grading process but in this post I want to focus on one aspect of that decision-making process.

Should evidence of learning be excluded simply because it has been used to inform instruction during the learning? That is, should formative assessment information only be used for formative purposes? And, should summative assessment information be used only for summative purposes? Or, as the secondary teachers put it, “We understood that we were not to use formative assessments as part of the summative grade.”

Information is information. And, what we do with information depends on purpose. The Assessment Reform Group (one member, Gordon Stobart, is one of our International delegates) in a 2009 document titled, "Fit for Purpose” put it this way, “It should be noted that assessments can often be used for both formative and summative purposes. “Formative” and “summative” are not labels for different types or forms of assessment but describe how assessments are used.” (2009, 9)

One of the pre-reading documents by Ministry of New Zealand, submitted by the New Zealand team members for the International Symposium, puts it this way, “Sometimes assessment is referred to as being either “formative” or “summative.” The formative use of assessment information is an important part of everyday practice. It is a diagnostic process concerned with identifying achievement and progress and strengths and weaknesses in order to decide what action is needed to improve learning on a day-by-day basis. The summative use of assessment is concerned with “summing up” achievement at a specific point of time. However, these summations can be used not only to ascertain the level of achievement at a specific point of time but also to look back and consider what progress has been made over a period of time compared with expected progress.” (Ministry of Education, 2011, 14)

In summary, one needs to consider all the evidence of learning – the student’s entire learning journey – in order to better understand what and how much has been learned. When teachers make a summative assessment of a student’s learning, we engage in making an informed professional judgment.” And, to do so, we use all the information available to determine how well students have learned what they needed to learn, can do, what they need to be able to do, and can articulate what they need to articulate in relation to the standards or outcomes for the course or subject area.

Statements such as, “Thou shall not use formative assessment as part of the summative grade” are not helpful when ‘informed professional judgment’ is at work.


Mansell, W., James, M. & the Assessment Reform Group (2009) Assessment in schools. Fit for purpose? A Commentary by the Teachingand Learning Research Programme. London: Economic and Social Research Council, Teaching and Learning Research Programme.

Ministry of Education (2011). Ministry of Education Position Paper: KO TE WHĀRANGI TAKOTORANGA ĀRUNGA, Ā TE TĀHUHU O TE MĀTAURANGA, TE MATEKITENGA. Retrieved March 17, 2014 Ministry of Education Position Paper: Assessment [Schooling Sector] http://www.minedu.govt.nz/~/media/MinEdu/Files/TheMinistry/MOEAssessmentPositionPaper_October11.pdf

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