Thoughts on Assessment 2: A Conversation

Last week #edchat on Twitter focused on assessment, including both formative and summative. Since that conversation there has been a further exchange of ideas. It started with Henrick Oprea (Blog, Twitter) and his post, On Assessment – part 1. His post got me thinking and I responded by posting Thoughts on Assessment: A response. soon after, I picked up a link (via Twitter) to Steven Anderson’s (Blog, Twitter) post  offering his thoughts, “Summative? Formative? I Just Wanna Know What My Kids Don’t . . .” The next day, after brief conversation, Jan Webb (Blog, Twitter) offered her take, “Assessment.” Henrick followed up with “On Assessment – part 2.”

I have spent time letting my thoughts about assessment and this sharing of ideas develop and want to add some additional thoughts to the conversation. I am not “against” assessment. I am against the way assessment is being administered in education today, especially summative assessment. I am reminded of Franks Smith’s comments,

Like memorization, testing has become central to education. Many people, teachers included, can’t imagine teaching or learning without it. 1

Assessment, currently, is primarily a teacher directed activity and focused on a fixed amount of information, learned over a fixed amount of time. It is time to rethink assessment and discover how it can be used to bring relevance back to the educational experience.

Henrick wrote in his follow-up post,

“In the scenario I mentioned, I believe the most influential factors are the mental and physical conditions of the teacher, i.e. rater-reliability. Ask anyone to read and analyze 50 tests on the same topic and provide feedback for each one of them. This is feasible, OK. However, tell this person that he or she will have 4 hours to do that. Even if the first tests are carefully corrected, some issues, such as fatigue, will heavily influence the results of the tests and the feedback given. When I mentioned I can’t blame teachers who have to assess 800 students for not doing it using an alternative to tests, this is what I meant. It’s not the teacher’s fault, it’s just not possible because of the way these schools, inserted in these educational systems, are organized.”

I want to start by saying I understand Henrick’s position, or at least I would like to think I do. Here is what I hear, “Quality assessment, while laudable, isn’t realistic because of the overwhelming nature of evaluating those types of assessments when given to a large amount of students.” It is this dilemma I want to try and address through this post and hopefully offer a way of looking at and doing assessment that alleviates the stress described by Henrick.

Assessment is not a necessary evil, it is rightfully necessary and can be a productive part of a learning environment. However, it is often used inappropriately. The most egregiously uses of assessment would be standardized testing, which has lead to the creation of  a testing culture in education. In the process of growing this culture the system has completely forgotten that students are the reason for the educational endeavor. In my thinking I was reminded of a something Theodore Sizer said,

Tests may usefully tell us what a student can display at a given moment, but can they predict for us the promise of a student’s disposition to use knowledge effectively when faced with important new situations? 2

I think that is a good place to start thinking about assessment. Schools are for the development of knowledge and the skill to use it to generate new ideas. Assessment needs to allow the student and the teacher to determine whether the learning that is occurring is shallow or deep. The contrast is described this way by Daniel Willingham,

We can contrast shallow knowledge [meaning that students have some understanding of the material but their understanding is limited] with deep knowledge. A student with deep knowledge knows more about the subject, and the pieces of knowledge are more richly interconnected. The student understands not just the parts but also the whole. 3

Rarely is assessment used to evaluate whether a student has developed a “big picture” vision of the knowledge they have been guided through. The fractured curriculum we provide for them focuses on preparation for summative assessments that do little to encourage deep learning in favor of memorization of disparate facts that are rarely connected to each other. This seems to be education’s primary approach to assessment, and that is understandable because it allows for easy sorting via grading. According to Rieneke Zessoules and Howard Gardner,

Assessment is typically associated with the possession of information, rather than the mastery of ongoing processes (like learning to write, revise, and take criticism or, even more radically, to integrate the results of a critique into a work). Most current forms of assessment require highly specialized, yet surprisingly superficial, kinds of knowledge.

We test students for what they know rather than what they understand. Yet these skills have little or no relevance beyond the school walls. 4

Summative assessment, in the form of a test, has little effect on student learning other than the creation of stress or ambivalence. Formative assessment on the other hand, when designed and used effectively, has the power to not only influence teaching, but more importantly to provide students real feedback that can help them learn more effectively and internalize their learning in ways that allow them to generate original ideas from their learning.

The achievement gains associated with formative assessment have been described as “among the largest ever reported for educational interventions”. While many teachers incorporate aspects of formative assessment into their teaching, it is much less common to find formative assessment practiced systematically. 5

Steven Anderson provided definitions for both formative and summative assessment from The Florida Center For Instructional Technology at USF:

“Formative assessments are on-going assessments, reviews, and observations in a classroom. Teachers use formative assessment to improve instructional methods and student feedback throughout the teaching and learning process. For example, if a teacher observes that some students do not grasp a concept, she or he can design a review activity or use a different instructional strategy. Likewise, students can monitor their progress with periodic quizzes and performance tasks. The results of formative assessments are used to modify and validate instruction.”

“Summative assessments are typically used to evaluate the effectiveness of instructional programs and services at the end of an academic year or at a pre-determined time. The goal of summative assessments is to make a judgment of student competency after an instructional phase is complete.”

In most instances assessment takes the form of tests or quizzes and summative assessment usually carries the most weight in the determination of a grade at the end of a learning module. Teachers administer tests, use those tests to determine effectiveness of teaching and to sort students via grading. There is little usefulness in the process for students, they might know how they compare to other students, but that is of little value and they discover little about their learning from the experience. That brings me to a significant point:

“Self-assessment is essential for progress as a learner: for understanding of selves as learners, for an increasingly complex understanding of tasks and learning goals, and for strategic knowledge of how to go about improving.” 6

Students must be involved in the assessment process. Teachers can provide rubrics, define learning expectations, and select instances of formative assessment, but students must be provided an opportunity for self-assessment and it must matter. If a student’s personal analysis of their work has no bearing on the “grade” attached at the end of the learning, it sends the message that the only thing that matters is the teacher’s analysis. Henrick commented on this idea, “The ultimate purpose of assessment is to enable [ ] ongoing progress.” Self-assessment is a powerful method of formative assessment. that empowers students through their learning process.

Assessment should occur over time and not just at the end of a learning module. Again, formative assessment is a far better tool for this purpose. In their book, Disrupting Class, Clayton Christensen, Michael Horn, and Curtis Johnson tell the story of senior lecturer at MIT, Steven Spear. Spear, while working on his doctorate, arranged to be trained and then work on the assembly line at one of the Big Three auto plants in Detroit and one of Toyota’s plants. In Detroit, Spear was provided training to install a passenger seat. His instructor went through the entire process of installing a passenger seat and at the conclusion asked if Spear thought he could install one of the seats, Spear was certain he could. The result on the assembly line was nothing short of a fiasco. In an hour’s worth of attempts Spear was successful only four times. The experience at the Toyota factory was significantly different. There, Spear was paired with a trainer who was to train him on a similar process to the one he had done in Detroit. The Toyota trainer established the learning process: there were seven steps to successfully installing the seat. Spear would be trained each step, but would only advance to the next once he was successful with the prior step. The trainer indicated that the learning time was variable. He might learn the first step quickly, in one minute, and then he could move on to step two. However, if it took an hour, that too was acceptable and when he had mastered step one he could move on. The stated goal from the beginning was designed to insure that when he reached the line, he would be prepared to do his task. Needless to say, when he moved to the line he was successful 100% of the time. The formative checks insured he was ready for each level of learning because of mastery of the previous steps. In both instance the summative assessment required the application of learning in a new way – actually installing the seat in a car that would only be in front of him for a short period of time. However, at the Detorit plant where only summative assessment was done, the process failed. At the Toyota plant, the summative assessment was simply assumed due to successful formative checks – in essence no summative assessment was necessary. The authors of Disrupting Class parallel this vignette to education this way:

Student-centric learning should, over time, obviate the need for examinations as we have known them. Alternative means of comparison, when necessary, will emerge.

When students learn through student-centric online technology, testing doesn’t have to be postponed until the end of an instructional module and then administered in a batch mode. [ ] the resulting learning can be much more consistent. [A]ssessment [ ] can be interactively and interdependently woven into the content-delivery stage [ ]. 7

Good formative assessment: based on established expectations; involving the students in planning and implementation; and used regularly throughout a learning experience will insure that “end-of-the-line inspection” is no longer necessary. The sum of the formative checks will evidence mastery. So what then? I suggest some summative assessment.

Of course there is a big, “however” needed following that last statement. I believe we, students and teachers, do need to see something at the completion of a learning module. What we need to see is what our students can make from their learning. When they are afforded the opportunity to innovate and use their imaginations to manipulate and complete the internalization of learning, they can generate exciting evidences of that learning. Summative assessment should be open ended and empower students to innovate. It should be looked forward to and not dreaded. What I am suggesting is an end to testing and a beginning to new processes that empower our students in ways that school should. It is a key idea in rethinking school and centering our purpose around the reason school should exist: students.

1. Smith, Frank. (1998). The Book of Learning and Forgetting. New York, New York: Teacher’s College Press.

2. Sizer, Theodore R.  (1992). Horace’s School: Redesigning The American High School. Boston, MA: Mariner Book.

3. Willingham, Daniel T. (2009). Why Don’t Student’s Like School?: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How The Mind Works and What It Means for The Classroom. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

4. Zessoules, Rieneke, & Howard Gardner. (1991). Authentic Assessment: Beyond the Buzzword and Into the Classroom. In Vitro Perrone (Ed.), Expanding Student Assessment. (pp. 47-71). Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

5. OECD. 2005. Formative Assessment: Improving Learning in Secondary Classrooms,,2546,en_2649_33723_34340421_1_1_1_1,00.html

6. Sadler, D. R. (1993). cited in Brookhart, S. M. (2001). Successful Students’ Formative and Summative Uses of Assessment Information. Assessment in Education. Vol. 8, No. 2, pp. 153-169.

7. Christiensen, Clayton M., Michael B. Horn & Curtis W. Johnson. (2008). Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns. New York, New York: McGraw Hill.

Photo Credits:

Classroom: Michelle Pacansky-Brock

Sextant: Library of Congress on Flickr

Other’s thoughts and ideas on assessment:

Reclaiming Assessment by Renee Moore at TeachMoore

Applying PLN – A Continuing Question for Me by David Warlick at 2¢ Worth

Guiding Principles for Assessment by Daniel Meyer at dy/dan

I Test, Therefore I Am at DragonPhysics Blog

Assessment, Giving Students A Choice by Maggie Hos-McGrane at Tech Transformation

It Is The Test! Or is it . . . at Constructing Meaning

Assess the Assessment by Tom Whitby at My Island View

Assessment as (re)search at University Writing Assessment


3 thoughts on “Thoughts on Assessment 2: A Conversation

Add yours

  1. Hear, hear! Well said. Although in a primary school context (as I am in) I would still say that a portfolio of evidence built up throughout a unit/an opportunity to demonstrate application of the knowledge learnt is more (age-)appropriate than an end of unit, high-pressure assessment. Using formative assessment to “fill the gaps” and develop pupils’ understanding is the MOST important part of our job as teachers, isn’t it? As such, I think any assessment that doesn’t put the emphasis on this pupil development is only paying lip-service to the term “assessment” and is ticking boxes put in place by the “powers-that-be”. And are we there to put ticks in boxes by completing an end of unit summative assessment, or to move our children’s learning forward? I know what I aim to do and I think every other educator I have spoken to says the same (please forgive me if I am wrong and have mis-interpreted anything anyone has ever said to me!).

  2. Thank you for helping us revisit the value of formative assessments. In the current testing-charged atmosphere, many teachers have allowed ourselves to be scared away from assessment. But I agree with that genuine evaluation is an essential part of every teacher’s work. I’d like to hear and think more about the possibilities of using formative assessments.

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