While most of the media’s attention has been focused on high-stakes summative evaluations, formative evaluations are gaining a lot of traction among teachers and other stakeholders.

Summative evaluations are primary used to rank, sort, and label.  Final exams are a good example of these.  When a student takes a final, she does not have any opportunities to revise her work.  Her teacher does not use the results of the final to inform the next stage of the student’s learning.  The stakes of the summative assessment are usually very high.  The score on the final is used solely to rank the student in relation to other students and help give them their grade/label.

On the contrary, formative assessments are used as part of a feedback loop between the learner and the teacher.  The stakes on a formative assessment are usually low, and a teacher will use a formative assessment to see how well her student learned the concepts or skills of the last lesson.  She will use the information to determine what concepts and skills need re-teaching, or if the pace of the class needs to speed up or slow down.

While teachers are encouraged to use formative assessments with their students, the education system is still relying heavily on summative assessments to judge schools and teachers as either good or failing.

I wonder what it might look like if school and district administrators, state and federal legislators used formative assessments to evaluate teachers and schools.

Some reformers want to use summative assessments to label teachers as effective, average, or failing without offering the proper supports for improvement.  This is seductive because it is easy.  All of the responsibility rests on the teacher.  “Your tests scores are low, fix it.”  Could you imagine a teacher behaving this way with students?  I can too.  I can see a teacher presenting information all week, month, or semester then giving a summative assessment.  The kid gets an “F” and the teacher says, “Do better.”

We wouldn’t accept this kind of behavior from a teacher.  Why should we expect this kind of behavior from school administrators or politicians?

As an alternative:

  • School administrators, and teacher/peer observers should use formative assessments for their teachers;
  • These assessments should be a blend of observations of the classroom and an analysis of student work;
  • The school administrator should use the data she sees in the observations and analysis to identify strengths and shortcomings in the teachers work;
  • Then, supports and interventions should be used to assist the teacher improve his work and, consequently, improve the work his students are doing.

In parallel:

  • Local and state educational officials should use formative assessments to look at schools;
  • These assessments should also include school observations and analysis of school outcome data;
  • Schools data could include many things that are far more important telling than mere scores on a one-shot tests
  • We should look at graduation rates, drop-out rates, and success rates of the school’s recent graduates;
  • Rather than look at such data and then label a school as “failing,” local and state officials should look at the strengths and shortcomings of the schools and identify supports and intervention to help school improve.

The problem with formative assessments is this: it is easy for teachers to identify strengths and shortcomings of their students, but it is hard to identify the kinds of supports or interventions a child needs to improve.  It is very hard to find the time and resources to implement those supports and interventions.  Likewise, it is easy for a school administrator to identify shortcomings of a teacher, but it is hard to imagine the kind of professional development that the teacher may need to improve.  It is really hard to find the resources to provide extra professional development.  It is easy for government and reformers to point their fingers and say, “Schools are failing.  Look at those test scores.  Shape up or ship out!”

The problem with summative assessments is that they do nothing to help solve the problem.  Teachers can’t help their children after they do poorly on a final exam.  Administrators can’t help their teachers if they only label them as “ineffective” on a review.  Politicians and reformers can’t help schools by just labeling them as “failing.”  As the iconic farmer would say, “You can’t fatten a chicken by weighing it.”

I’m encouraged by the growing numbers of school, district, and state education leaders who are beginning the hard work of helping schools and teachers to improve, rather then just ranking schools and teachers and calling that “reform”.

Instead of our obsession to sort and rank and leave it at that, we need to work together to actually help schools do better.  It’s hard work, but it is the only way we’ll make any progress.


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