Don’t Let Formative Assessment Become Summative

Posted on: August 7, 2011

I think just about every teacher can agree that they assess their students on a daily basis on a range of concepts, skills and level of understanding, even if they do not write the assessment down and make it “formal”.

But, and this is my main question, what do they / I / you do with that assessment?

Let me give an example.

In September I will have thirty new Grade One students arrive in my classroom. Some of them will have been in a KG class, either in my school or another, and some will not have. In English for the first three weeks I will be teaching the class the alphabet. They will be working on how to write the letters correctly, how they sound phonetically, and what words begin with those letters. A-I will be covered in week one, J-R in week two, and then S-Z in week three.

In week four comes the assessment. Oral phonics will be tested where the students will be asked to ‘read’ the letters out loud to the assessor, a ‘spelling’ test will be completed where students have to write the letters correctly after listening to the letter sound and a word given that begins with that lesson, and a phonics test will be given with pictures of objects where the students have to write the letter the object begins with in a box. These are all things that they will have completed in the lessons prior and ‘should’ be able to do for the test.

At the beginning of the next week we teachers get to see the tests that have been completed and marked to see which students know the alphabet and which students have gaps in their learning. While it is hoped that all the students in my class have ‘passed’ the tests and ‘know’ the whole alphabet, this is somewhat unrealistic. Yes, I will have taught the work the best I could. Yes, the students will have paid attention to the lessons (?!?). Therefore yes, the students will know the alphabet and got full marks in the tests.

Now the reality.

Child B wrote a g for the elephant. Does he think that elephant begins with g, or he wrote the e reversed? How do I know and what do I do about it? WHEN can I fix this?

Child F missed the first week of school and therefore missed A-I with no time in school to complete the work that she missed. Missed lessons = missed knowledge. What can I do about this? WHEN can I do something about this?

Child X,Y,and Z all put b for d and d for b. Was it that they did not hear the letters correctly? Or Did they reverse their letters? What can I do about it? WHEN?


I have taught the lessons, the students have completed the tests that are supposed to be formative assessment. But what happens now? If the test results simply go into my file and are ignored how can the assessment be formative? Ignored in the bottom of the drawer the assessment can only be summative – the students were tested to know whether they knew the alphabet, most did, some didn’t. Time to move on to the next concept!

Right? Wrong!

How can the students that showed gaps in their learning possibly continue onto the next concept or three. In week five we will be covering end consonants of three letter words, week six is medial a and e, week seven is medial i, o and u. Week eight are the assessments on those concepts. Child B will not write a letter e for a week and a half so how can he relearn what he needs to know? Child F will be introduced to b,d and g in week five, a and e in week six and i in week seven, but what about c,f, and h? Is it seriously going to be over two months before the student gets to hear and use these letters in a phonics lesson?

If we are to have assessment within learning we MUST use it to inform our planning. The first phonics lesson of week five should not be end consonants as the curriculum planned, but a recap of the letters that the students showed they did not know! Extra handwriting that week should be the word ‘bed’ to ensure that those letters are written the correct way! Child F will need extra time to complete the work that was missed and parents should be informed so that they can work with her – let’s face it, it will more than likely be down to the parents that she missed the first week to begin with.

OK. I know what you are thinking.

So there will be very few of you (none) that have tests on learning every forth week. There will probably be very few of you (none) that will teach the entire alphabet in three weeks to your Grade / Year One class. Most (all) will probably have read this and thought I am nuts. Yes, the example seems extreme to say the least, but the point is still relevant and obvious –

Assessment, however it is done, whenever it is done must be INFORMATIVE and USED by the teacher to plug gaps in the learning of those who did not come up to standard!

Assessment that is left in the bottom of drawers and ignored is SUMMATIVE not formative and might as well not have been done if it is not followed up!

So I ask you. What will you do with the assessments that you make next year?


2 Responses to "Don’t Let Formative Assessment Become Summative"

“Assessment, however it is done, whenever it is done must be INFORMATIVE and USED by the teacher to plug gaps in the learning of those who did not come up to standard!”

A great point, well made. Thanks for the contribution!

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