I come not to bury summative assessments but to praise them
The Northwest Evaluation Association recently surveyed parents and teachers to gauge their support for various types of assessment. The results indicated that just a quarter of teachers find summative assessments “‘extremely’ or ‘very’ valuable for determining whether students have a deep understanding of content.” By contrast, 67 percent of teachers (and 85 percent of parents) found formative and interim assessments extremely or very valuable.
I can understand why teachers would find formative and interim assessments appealing. After all, teachers generally either create those assessments themselves, or are at least intimately involved with their creation. And they are, therefore, more flexible tools that can be tweaked depending on, for instance, the pace of classroom instruction.
But, while formative and interim assessments are critically important and should be used to guide instruction and planning, they cannot and should not be used to replace summative assessments, which play an equally critical role in a standards-driven system.
Formative and interim assessments cannot and should not be used to replace summative assessments.
Summative assessments are designed to evaluate whether students have mastered knowledge and skills at a particular point in time. For instance, a teacher might give a summative assessment at the end of a unit to determine whether students have learned what they needed to in order to move forward. Similarly, and end-of-course or end-of-year summative assessment can help determine whether students mastered the content and skills outlined in a state’s standards for that grade.
If you believe that we need standards to ensure that all students—regardless of their zip code or socioeconomic status—need to learn the same essential content and be held to the same standards, than it’s essential to have an independent gauge that helps teachers, parents, administrators, and leaders understand where students are not reaching the goals we’ve set out for them.
Unfortunately, the NWEA survey does not make this clear, opting instead to narrowly define summative assessments only as “state or district-wide standardized tests that measure grade-level proficiency, and end-of-year subject or course exams.”
It’s hard to imagine many teachers who are going to be enthusiastic about the current “state or district-wide standardized tests” in use, which often include low-quality questions and the results of which typically don’t reach teachers until it’s too late to do anything with them. And so, by defining summative assessments in the particular rather than the general, the NWEA findings tell us less about how teachers feel about the value of summative assessments writ large, and more about how they feel about the current crop of state tests, which pretty much everyone agrees need significant improvement.
What’s more, everyone has a natural bias in favor of the things they create themselves. And so, it’s unsurprising that teachers find the assessments that they create and score (in real time) more useful than tests that are created and scored centrally.
Everyone has a natural bias in favor of the things they create themselves.
Yet, having a set of common standards—whether common to all schools within a state, or common across all states—requires some independent measure of student learning. There needs to be some gauge—for teachers, administrators, and parents—that helps show whether classroom instruction, materials, and even formative and interim assessments are aligned to the state standards in terms of both content and rigor. And to help teachers and parents understand whether, in the end, students learned the essential content and skills they needed each year.
Of course, shifting the focus from teacher-created assessments to centrally-developed state (or even district) assessments is difficult. And many teachers will resist being judged by something they had no hand in creating, and realigning instruction around standards that may look different from what they’ve taught in their classrooms for years.
In the end, if we want standards-driven reform to work, we need to get summative assessments right. Trading summative assessments for formative assessments isn’t an option. They are different tools with very different roles in the system. That means policymakers and education leaders need to do a far better job of soliciting teacher feedback on these assessment tools and they need to focus much more time and attention on delivering high-quality professional development that helps teachers use the data effectively to guide planning, instruction, and formative assessment development. But it also means that teachers in standards-driven schools need to accept that student learning will be measured by something other than the observations and assessments created within the four walls of their schools.
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About the Editor
Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow
Kathleen Porter-Magee is a Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow and the Senior Director of the High Quality Standards Program at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, where she leads the Institute’s work on state, national, and international standards evaluation and analysis.
May 16, 2013
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