I’ve been in an assessment moratorium for quite some time now. In fact, I started a post a while back titled “Assessment Moratorium,” but apparently was so confused that I never finished it. I’ve been in this immense state of confusion for so long, and I’m beginning to wonder if all the time we spend formally assessing is really worth our time. Are we only doing it because our predecessors engaged in this behavior? Or because our students, their parents, and our bosses expect us to do it?  Or is it really what is best for kids.

Mastery Learning and Assessment

In an era full of retakes, mastery learning, and rote skill-drill, it’s hard to really know what those grades mean.  In essence, if a child is able to take a test multiple times, all it is showing is that they’ve learned the format of any given test and are able to shakily reproduce their teacher’s behaviors if they’re given a few tries.  This isn’t learning.  This isn’t assessment.  This isn’t what school is supposed to be about.

And so we’ve tried to avoid having to do these retakes by incorporating formative assessment, which is, in my opinion, an excellent way to monitor progress along the way. It helps us intervene and support before true intervention is needed. In fact, we could maybe even consider it a form of Tier I RtI instruction.  But even this improvement in education has its weaknesses.  The problem is that, at least for me, when I am building formative assessments, they look strikingly similar to the summative assessment.  In fact, they kind of are the summative assessment, bringing about the same aforementioned problems: The kids are learning the format of a test and simply reproducing what they did (or did not do) before.

photoThe bigger issue here is that our assessments are not fostering application, they are not promoting problem-solving skills, and they are not making our kids think critically about what they’re learning.  Instead, they’re making them creatures of habit, slaves of routine, and predictable, one-dimensional thinkers.

Am I saying we throw out formative assessment?  Of course, not.  It’s been empirically proven to foster great gains in student learning.  I suppose all I’m saying is that we should start diversifying our assessments and the way that we assess students in the classroom, including the way that we build our formative assessments.  Instead of providing repetitive iterations of the same predictable skill, students should be given varied iterations of similar skills that allow for application in different contexts, revealing the multi-dimensionality of the skills that we’re learning.  But how do we do this successfully?  How do we manage varied assessments and the little souls that go along with them?  Better yet, how do we vary our assessment practices while still preserving the validity and reliability of our assessments as predictors of student growth?

It really is a bit contradictory, this paradigm in which all educators have laid themselves.  We want students to own their learning, we want them to be able to blaze their own trail through respective educational grasslands, yet we try to control every variable through creating “valid” assessments that assess them all in the same way.  Perhaps, though, with the simple modification of our view on some simple existing practices, we could change this.


I’ve been working on portfolios with my students for quite some time now.  I started almost three years ago now, and each year they manage to improve slightly.  When I began, they were target-based, this last year I moved to more standards-based, and now I’ve begun to organize them more by unit.  What I’ve learned is that the broader the portfolios tend to be, the more wiggle room I seem to have in terms of varying assessments, and the more ownership the students have in the process, as well.

Essentially, the classroom is littered with opportunities for formative assessment.  Every utterance that escapes the students’ mouths and word that leaks from their fingers are opportunities for formative assessment; we just cannot possibly harness all of them in an efficient amount of time.  However, as technology improves and becomes more accessible, this can be as simple as taking videos and snapping pictures to document learning.  Check out the two examples below, both from the same unit, but from two different students.  You can see some commonalities, but some glaring differences, as well.

Student A

Screen Shot 2014-05-28 at 8.03.36 PMStudent B

Screen Shot 2014-05-28 at 8.03.50 PM

In fact, I argue that this more frequent organization and collection of this informal assessment data will begin to blur the lines between what is formative and what is summative.

Merging Formative and Summative

By modifying (note: not radically changing) our definition of what formative assessment truly is, we might be able to make our assessment practices more effective, efficient, and beneficial for kids. Here’s the thing with formative assessment: In a way, each of the formative assessments we do is, in fact, a summative assessment at the moment of administration or collection.  At that point, it is truly the summation of all learning up to that given point. Take literacy, for example.

Literacy, in my opinion, is about as multi-dimensional as it gets.  During guided reading, I have students working on a number of activities, anywhere from word study and vocabulary, to independent reading and discussion posts online that relate to our current topic/target of study.  While these are purposeful activities that serve to create a rich literacy environment, I argue that these are all simultaneously formative and summative assessments that allow me to view the summation of my students’ learning up to that point, while informing my future instruction.

However, instead of grading them at the end of every week, I request the students include these in their portfolios, in order to document their current progress.  Then, at a later time, I can view them, should I see the need, and they can compare previous artifacts with newer artifacts as time goes on, specifically when it comes time to display their progress to their parents.  This oftentimes is a logistical nightmare, and I promise you that I haven’t figured it all out, but what it lends itself to is a more individualized and qualitative view of assessment, allowing for layers of embedded differentiation and snapshots of these instantaneous culminations of student learning at various points throughout the year, with a sprinkle of student ownership on top.

I suppose the only perceived difference between our current definitions of formative and summative assessments is that the summative assessment marks the end of a unit; however, I argue that a summative assessment still has the ability to inform our future instruction in one way or another, and really should be considered another type of formative assessment.  For instance, my students’ stories, written earlier this year, while a strong summative indicator of proficiency in sensory details and plot development, signaled a need for attention to tone, figurative language, and symbolism in literature and their own writing.  Further, my students’ “summative” assessments on comparing and contrasting themes, served as a “formative” assessment for other compare and contrast responses as the year continued.

Our current segmented view of formative and summative assessments, as well as their respective purposes, isolates our units from one another, but by viewing these assessment periods as more continuous and allowing for variations within the assessments, along with student-owned documentation, I believe that we can achieve a cohesive experience for our students while still making assessment more differentiated, and most importantly, more purposeful.

Leave a Reply