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Bruno: How Summative Assessments Help Teachers

Surgeon5bl8Apparently interim (or "formative") assessments are a lot more popular with many educational stakeholders than end-of-unit or end-of-year (i.e., "summative") tests.  Fortunately, Kathleen Porter-Magee takes up the defense of summative assessments, including often-unpopular state tests, in a post that I think is pointed in the right direction.

The distinction between summative and formative assessments is badly overstated.  It's not unusual, for instance, to hear educators describe formative assessments as akin to regular physicals from your doctor while comparing summative assessments to "autopsies."  This analogy emphasizes the uselessness of the summative assessment for the "patient", but obscures the fact that the information gained in an autopsy - whether literal or metaphorical - can actually be quite useful for helping other people.

Contra Kathleen, I do not think it's necessary to concede that the results of summative, end-of-year state tests "typically don’t reach teachers until it’s too late to do anything with them."

State test results - and, in some cases, results of teacher-designed end-of-unit tests - often arrive too late to help the students who took the test, but can still be used to help improve instruction and learning for future students.

To illustrate with a personal example, I've definitely changed the instruction in my science classes in response to state test results suggesting that my past students had struggled in a few specific areas.  I now spend more time with my 8th graders distinguishing regions of the periodic table, for example, and somewhat less time on the more general "investigation and experimentation" skills that carry over from the 7th grade content.  (It's also nice, frankly, to receive some feedback from a relatively objective 3rd party so that not all of the assessments I give my students are subject to my personal biases.)

Summative and formative assessments can - and should - both be used to inform teachers' instructional decisions.  There are undoubtedly lots of problems with how we use tests in American education, but those problems are unlikely to be illuminated by dwelling on the superficial formative/summative distinction. When a test is administered is in many respects less important than the informational content of the results and how that information is used in the future. - PB (@MrPABruno) (Image source)


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I'd never seen anyone draw an analogy between a summative assessment and an autopsy, which is probably a good thing. That is a really awful analogy.

Anyone who wanted to use a medical analogy might better equate the annual physical with the summative assessment. Formative assessments are more like, "Did I get 30 minutes of exercise today?" and "Am I able to walk a mile faster than I did a month ago?"

I'm a big proponent of formative assessments, particularly when done using informal writing (my e-book Shape Learning, Reshape Teaching is devoted to the topic), but as you point out, summative assessments have their place, particularly as a guide to future teacher behavior.

@Linda - Thanks for the thoughts. I prefer your analogy considerably.

Summmative assessments also help students because 1) they are benchmarks for larger chunks of material; and 2) they force students to study, which alone is known to help retention and understanding.

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