An Assessment Debate

formative summative assessments

On March 6, we’re having a social to debate every educator’s favorite topic: testing. In the past decade, there is tremendous amount of pressure for teachers to be accountable for their role and still provide a safe place to learn and explore for students. The emphasis on testing comes as a result of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 that required all public schools to administer standardized tests. It’s a national effort to ensure all US students have achieved a high level of understanding when they get their high school diploma.

The harsh reality, however, is that testing is a stressful and cumbersome event for everyone involved: from parents to administrators, to teachers and students in the classroom. As districts are gearing up for testing season, we’re taking a look at the pros and cons of different types of assessments. Our focus will be on three main types of assessments: high-stakes (or summative), low-stakes (or formative), and alternative types of assessments. We will explore how each mode promotes student learning.

High-stakes assessments, like standardized state tests, measure how schools stand on a district, state, and national level. These tests are in a constant state of flux, always evolving to accurately measure levels of student achievement. Here in Massachusetts, lawmakers decided to replace the MCAS with PARCC, a exam aligned with college expectations, effective starting in 2015.

Low-stakes, or formative, assessments stand as daily exercises to keep minds fresh and move instruction forward. If high-stakes testing measures learning, low-stakes testing is a part of learning. The daily check-ins like homework, quizzes and exit tickets, help students and teachers decide how to proceed in the learning process. Low-stakes assessments, by nature, don’t wield as much pressure as the high-stakes assessments. In turn, they aren’t as challenging and powerful enough to measure a semester/year’s worth of learning. The use of formative assessment involves a more dynamic, iterative approach to teaching. Combined with timely feedback, these low-stakes assessments really up the student engagement and collaboration aspect of learning.

Alternative assessments move away from traditional pencil and paper testing. For example, one school is applying to forgo the Kentucky state test for project-based testing. In this format, students present on what they’ve learned to a panel, much like a PhD candidate would defend a thesis. In the real world, it is highly unlikely that people demonstrate their knowledge in a black and white, bubble sheet assessment. These alternative assessments are creative ways of measuring student achievement and mastery.

At Gradeable, we are working to bridge the gap between everyday low-stakes assessments and the high-stakes assessments. In addition, we make it easier to track student progress as you go for alternatives like project- and standards-based learning. There is no one-size-fits-all assessment that covers every aspect of the educational process. Instead, we believe the most effective approach is to use a dynamic and adaptive combination of all three ways to assess.

Our assessment of assessments will culminate in our third Gradeable Social on the assessment debate on March 6 at 5:30 p.m. at LearnLaunch. So if you’re in the Boston area and have something to say about assessments, please join us.

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