Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The next big thing: "Formative" vs. "Summative" assessments

I was trying to figure a useful angle for this post :-).

Our district is currently exploring and emphasizing the value of formative assessment. For those outside the ed world, formative assessment is basically when a teacher assesses a student's knowledge during a unit being taught. A summative assessment is a test at the end of a unit.

The purpose of a formative assessment is to further student learning: if you know what a student knows and doesn't know you can fine tune your teaching to help that student learn more.

A summative assessment, on the other hand, is used for evaluation: good job bad job or somewhere in between, in other words: this is your consequence -- good or bad -- of your efforts, this goes in your permanent records. Time to move on.

Both of these kinds of assessments fit with different worldviews, really. Both are important in education and in life. Both are important on an organizational level. But... would you want your child's teacher to put more emphasis on the formative or the summative? Do you feel an entrepreneur, an innovator, would care more about one or the other?

Soooo... the Fire Marshal walked into Christen's room last week, glanced around at the organized distribution of cables hanging from the ceiling and said, turning away, "Every cable has to be removed from this room by tomorrow." This, I would say, is a great example of the negatives of a summative assessment: some things were observed, a judgment was made, a consequence assigned.

He has the power, he has the responsibility. Safety is at stake. Seems like he was just doing his job. Kind of like a teacher: the teacher looks at the student's lab writeup, compares it to the standards, makes a judgment and assigns a grade. There is a winner or loser. Just doing our job. Time to move on.

However, I'm proud to say the people in charge at our district, while respecting the fire marshals proclamation, are looking at this from a formative perspective. Facilities are investigating (expensive) electrical modifications. Yes, money is a problem, however, they are searching. Our IT leader is looking at installing for us special power strips while we're looking at longer-term solutions. These leaders are looking at the same information as did the fire marshal, however they are looking to improve the program, not simply okay it or delete it.

One could easily say that the fire marshal was just doing his job. Having done a good bit of construction on my house over the last few years and thus working with different city code inspectors I know that this is not the only perspective available to an inspector. If they choose, they can take an extra five minutes, answering questions, looking at details, considering alternatives.

This experience is a reminder to me that we all owe our community, be they students in our class or schools within our jurisdiction, the gift of our expertise not just a judgment from our power.

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