All Assessment Is Summative

December 7th, 2012

It has been awhile since we have posted a blog with the intent of defining who we are or what we believe.  In this weeks post, we decided to address one of the fundamentals of what we do: assessment. Why do we assess our students?  This seemingly rhetorical question is anything but rhetorical.  We assess our students to make sure they understand the concept(s) we just taught.  We assess our students because we have to enter a grade in the grade book.  We assess our students because there is a test at the end of every chapter. We assess because that is a part of what we do – we teach and then we assess.  Regardless of the reason, unfortunately, all assessment is summative.

Most of you are probably inclined to argue with that last statement, and you would be right to do so.  You most likely want to point out that formative assessment, assessment for learning, is quite different from summative assessment.  With formative assessment, the purpose or intent of assessment is to identify which students have or have not mastered the concepts or skills you are assessing and then provide appropriate support to all of your students.  You could also argue that formative assessment is a process that allows you, the teacher, to evaluate the effectiveness of your instruction by analyzing the data you receive from the assessment you just gave.  Additionally, it would be just as easy to argue that all assessment is formative if teachers choose to use the data collected to improve their instruction and provide interventions for students.

This brings up an important element of assessment.  The intent or purpose of an assessment does not define whether an assessment is summative or formative; it is the “action” taken by the teacher following an assessment that ultimately provides the distinction.

Following an assessment, if your action is to record the student’s score in the grade book and begin planning for the next concept, chapter or unit – your assessment was summative.  If, after giving an assessment, your next action is to remind those students who did poorly on the exam that they should have studied harder – your assessment was summative.  If the assessment you are giving was created by the district and labeled an interim formative benchmark assessment and the next action taken was to house the data in the district data warehouse and your action is to begin preparing for the next interim formative benchmark – your assessment, despite its name, was summative.

Following an assessment, if your action is to evaluate student results and implement intervention strategies for struggling as well as advanced students – your assessment was formative.  If students in your class already know the assessment they are taking is being used to inform both you and them of their current level of understanding and retakes are expected – your assessment was formative.  If, following the delivery of a district created interim formative benchmark assessment, you analyze the results and evaluate the effectiveness of your instruction – your assessment was formative.  If you see teacher questioning and observation as a means for providing immediate interventions – you are formatively assessing your students.

One could argue that all assessment is summative or all assessment is formative or you can choose to take the middle ground and say it depends.  We believe that all assessment should be formative with the exception of high stakes tests, which we believe should be eliminated.  The ultimate goal of any assessment should be to inform instruction and provide opportunities for immediate interventions and these things only occur when an assessment is being used formatively.

It is worth noting that there is an additional element of formative assessment that we believe is the most powerful means of improving teacher performance – Common Formative Assessment.  When a teacher assesses his/her students, they are basing outcomes on a single measure: student results.  When teachers agree to collaborate and share the results of a common assessment with one another, teachers can evaluate the performance of the students in multiple classes as well as evaluate their own performance relative to one another.  This creates opportunities for teachers to maximize the effectiveness of the formative assessment process.

Whether you are working independently or collaboratively, you can call your assessments whatever you want, but immediate and targeted action is required if they are going to truly be formative; otherwise all assessment is summative.


One Response to “All Assessment Is Summative”

  1. Brad Caldwell Says:

    Great blog! High stakes tests should be eliminated. Formative assessment is and always has been the most effective and beneficial way of assessing students for learning. The issue then lies in what do we do with the data? Are teachers meeting regularly in professional learning communities and discussing how they can improve their instruction, differentiation and engagement within the classroom. Are our instructional leaders providing the time necessary for this to be meaningful to teachers and ultimately student achievement? Are our systems utilizing technologies for teacher collaboration anytime and everywhere? If we are not capitalizing on the collective expertise of our professional learning communities then most assessment becomes summation and improvement in instruction rarely happens. Lets use our tools to improve!

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