Thursday, June 24, 2010

Assessment Malpractice

Assessment is a hot topic in the teaching world, and I have noticed a real imbalance between the two different kinds of assessment. First, here are the two kinds:

Summative Assessment: This kind of assessment is done to assess a student's skills and knowledge after the learning has taken place. This is a judgement that traditionally takes place in the form of a grade or mark.

Formative Assessment: This kind of assessment is done while students are still learning. The teacher observes and interacts with students to (1) modify and adapt their instruction to better teach them and (2) provide information for students so that they may take that information and improve on their skills and knowledge.

Current trends in teacher professional development are tearing teachers in two different directions. Here's what I mean: When it comes to actually teaching students, teachers are encouraged to differentiate their instruction. Basically differentiate means that a teacher understands that no two children learn the same way and so the teacher will create mulitple paths for a student to take as they learn.

I have little to no problem with this current trend. The more teachers differentiate their instruction, the more students are likely to learn. Formative assessment flourishes with differentiated instruction. That's a good thing!

Here's the problem: teachers are also under more pressure than ever to show results on high-stakes standardized tests - and these tests are more than likely multiple choice.

Do you see the problem?

Teachers are being asked to differentiate their instruction but then forced to show high test scores on undifferentiated assessments.

Summative assessment can be done better, but we have to get away from our misguided obsession with standardization. We have to get away from our our perverted need for data that can be easily bar graphed or pie-charted. Children are more than data and learning is far too messy to try and average.

If we:
  • use a multiple choice assessment to assess a student
  • have student tests out with a lower proficiency than they actually possess
  • use that assessment to report on their learning
  • know the gross limitations involved with multiple choice assessments (which we do)
-this is a kind of educational malpractice-

Here's how this plays out in real life:
Little Johnny takes the test and scores poorly. The teacher sees Johnny's test score and says "wow, that's weird. I know Johnny gets this stuff better than that!" The teacher than proceeds to knowingly use an inaccurate assessment to report on Johnny's learning.
It's weird. The teacher knows better but has become a slave to the test and feels compelled to use a summative assessment that is masquerading as an accurate, objective depiction of Johnny's learning. This is sad.

In my classroom, I use formative assessment 99.9% of the time. I provide students with both differentiated instruction and differentiated assessment. Rather than my students learning the way I teach, I teach the way my students learn. And equally important - rather than forcing my students to fit my assessment needs, my assessments fit my students needs.


  1. For a long time, I've been advocating differentiated assessment to go with differentiated instruction. It's the ethical thing to do.

  2. This is a great post. My only issue is the line, "has become a slave to the test and feels compelled to use a summative assessment that is masquerading as an accurate, objective depiction." Perhaps this is the case for some teachers; in my experience, many teachers, such as yourself, John Spencer, and myself, do everything we can do help our students, and minimize the damage of the "big tests." One anecdotal conversation I will share; after my district's strike, many of us felt that we allowed the big titans - the Union Bosses/Leaders v. Admin Bosses/Leaders. It was a complicated, messy experience. And at the end. all the teachers really should have been fighting for is that the high stakes test wasn't high stakes. And in my opinion, we had this opportunity, and "we" failed. Those of us who wanted this, fought for it, were silenced by both sides as being treasonous.

    Good times.

    So, again, good Mr. Bower -- what do you propose we do? Continue fighting the good fight, via underground railroad style (alluding to your slave analogy), and, or, keep trying to make our opinions and voices heard to the powers that be?

    I would appreciate pragmatic, genuine insight into this quandary.
    Thank you - respectfully.

  3. Hey Joe,

    I hear ya. I've posted some resources on one type of formative assessment, assessment for learning, here:

    Hope it helps.