Formative Assessment? What’s the big deal?

If you have a child beyond Kindergarten, you’ve probably heard about school assessment being divided into two categories: formative and summative. People may have even explained the difference. But in plain language – why does it matter? Isn’t a grade a grade?

Well, as it turns out, assessment and grades are two different things!

Assessment refers to all the ways in which we try to understand where students are in their learning. Most of the time, the assessment happening in a classroom is on-going and often pretty informal. Teachers need to know how things are going, minute-by-minute and day-by-day, so they can make decisions about what to do next to move their students’ learning forward.

  • They might use a specific question somewhere during a lesson to help them understand where each student is in their thinking. 
  • Students might work, independently or with others, on a series of practice questions. 
  • Perhaps teachers look at a rough draft of a writing assignment, so they can provide helpful feedback. 
  • Or the assessment might happen during an “at elbow” conversation with a student as they work on a task. 

In all of these examples, it doesn’t make sense for teachers to assign a grade. Learning is happening here, and grades can actually get in the way!

The assessment at this point is for the benefit of the teacher and the students, and it is totally “formative”. By that, we mean assessment informs students and teachers so they can make good decisions about what to do next.

Teachers also make decisions about when it’s important or helpful to share some of that formative assessment information with parents, so you can support the learning at home. But it’s important to balance sharing that formative assessment information with the goal of providing students time and space within the classroom to take risks and make mistakes. Students really do need time for learning.

Sometimes, assessment provides evidence that will be used to assign a grade. A grade is our best attempt to measure the learning that has taken place, and it’s assigned at the end of a period of learning. This is referred to as “summative assessment”, and it might take the form of a finished piece of writing, a lab report, a unit test, or a gymnastics routine, to name just a few possibilities. These grades are shared with students, parents, and others who have the right to know.

Limiting the number of summative grades that are assigned to students helps us all keep our focus on the learning, not the grade!

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