If you were to ask any educator, “What are some current hot topics trending in education right now?” I submit that many of them would mention the idea of formative versus summative assessments. You might then ask them to explain, in layman’s terms, what the difference in these two types of assessment actually is. At that point, in many cases, you would likely lose your audience.
But why? Why is it that with so much emphasis on these assessments in the education world, it’s still difficult to explain them? If it’s difficult even to explain them, then we can absolutely imagine what it must be like as a classroom teacher to incorporate both types of assessments in a meaningful way.
Maybe a simple example would help to illuminate the differences. A parent enrolls her child in a ballet class, imagining that someday, after years of meaningful training, she will become an accomplished dancer and performer. She envisions her child on stage among other professional dancers putting on a performance of the Nutcracker. But, as we know, not all children who are enrolled in dance classes ever reach this very special milestone. So, what then exactly is the difference in the experiences of the students who do become accomplished dancers versus those who don’t?
While the dance instructors who teach children year after year might not explain it in exactly the same way, the answer is simple: formative versus summative assessment. Would-be accomplished dancers perfect their craft following a carefully planned and executed practice plan that incorporates both short- and long-term checkpoints for progress. Class descriptions and desired outcomes year after year gradually increase in their complexity and expected outcomes.
Young dancers begin their practice by enrolling in classes focused on creative movement – or attending to music while learning to use the body to demonstrate basic movements to build a foundation for all disciplines of dance types and techniques. Once dancers master these basic movements, the instructor begins to incorporate observation with on-the-spot feedback to fine-tune specific pieces of a technique over long periods of time. The student will utilize the instructor’s feedback to make adjustments to what they are doing, leading to mastery. After many years of this, the accomplished dancer masterfully combines moves like the plié, chassé, and jeté on stage as Mom once envisioned.
But, what about that process mattered most? What if the dancer never mastered the plié? Would that matter?
How did the young student demonstrate progress over time? We can think about how important it was for the teacher to intervene during specific lessons and provide the corrective feedback that led to the adjustments being made. Imagine that the teacher was never there, and the young child simply danced around the room like nobody was watching. Or, imagine that the teacher was present, but failed to conduct appropriate observations to provide corrective feedback? Or, perhaps worst of all, imagine the teacher was present and provided feedback, but failed to hold the student responsible for incorporating the feedback?
Hence, the idea of formative versus summative assessment. In this example, the formative assessment process comes in during the actual lesson. It is the formative process that drives a student to improve in such a way that they are indeed ready for the long-term, summative assessment. Formative assessment embeds short-term objectives with specific and measurable desired outcomes. Activities and assignments provided to students must align with these short-term objectives, so that over time, the successes join together to develop knowledge and skills relative to a specific grade level and content area course.
All along, as students engage in their coursework, the expectation of both the teacher and student must be that short term success will be achieved that will build upon itself to develop readiness for the long-term, summative assessment. In essence, run a mile, then multiple miles, and then the marathon.
So, how might we as teachers reach mastery of the implementation of both types of assessment?
Lesson plans and activities must be deliberately developed to incorporate formative assessment practices. Teachers must be able to think about, and plan for, specific ways they can measure their students’ progress on specific skills and objectives during each and every lesson. More specifically, the activities, assessments, and assignments must all work together in cohesion to ensure that every single student completes a lesson either having achieved mastery of the individual skills or having received the corrective feedback necessary to eventually get there. For example, how about wrapping your lesson up with a very simple journal question: “Write down a summary of what you learned in this lesson today.” Such an activity relies on basic recall and serves as an artifact of a student’s short-term progress.
From there, we must be ready the very next day to repeat the same pattern for a new lesson, but with a new or slightly more complex short-term objective. Then, and only then, can we expect students to develop the readiness over time for the summative, or long-term assessment, that is ahead of them.
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