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
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
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
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.
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.