Grading Formative and Summative Assessments
We received a question about grading, specifically how to balance grading between formative and summative assessments. The author was concerned because the grading practices of the teachers in the school were so different.
To answer the question, we need to develop a common understanding of the terms formative assessment and summative assessment. A summative assessment is an assessment that asks, “Did the student acquire the intended knowledge and skills by the deadline—yes or no, pass or fail?” For example, every course at Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, Illinois, ends with a final exam that counts for 25 percent of a student’s final grade. This is clearly a summative exam. State exams are another example of summative assessments.
A formative assessment asks, “Is the student learning it, and if not, what steps do we need to take to support his or her learning?” Of course, good teachers are using formative assessment in their classrooms every day as they use a variety of strategies to check for student understanding—asking questions, having students work on a problem or write an answer as they circulate around the room to check student work, using clickers, etc. A teacher who asks students to complete a first draft of an essay and then provides feedback on how the next draft can be improved is also using a formative assessment.
But this question gets at the issue of what happens when, at the end of a unit, the teacher gives a unit exam to determine if the student has learned. Is that exam formative or summative? The answer is, “It depends on how you use it.” If the student fails the exam and is merely given an F and the class moves on, it is a summative exam. But if the exam is assessing the essential skills we want all students to learn, simply moving on is not in keeping with a commitment to learning for all. If the student is given another opportunity to demonstrate that he has learned, it would be formative.
We have seen schools simply allow students to take a test or turn in an assignment over and over again until the student demonstrates proficiency. This is often very frustrating to teachers who feel it sends the message to students that the initial quality of your work does not matter because we just keep giving you more chances.
We feel that the better strategy is to use the assessment in the following ways:
- Use the assessment to identify students who are not yet proficient on a particular skill or concept.
- Require those students to keep working on that skill or concept in a structured schoolwide intervention program that is timely, directive, and systematic. This intervention never removes the student from class. Time is purposefully carved out in the daily schedule to provide students who struggle with additional support.
- When the student has demonstrated proficiency in intervention, allow the student to retake an assessment on the skill or concept in question. If the student is able to demonstrate proficiency, the failing grade should be dropped and replaced by one that demonstrates proficiency because grades should reflect student learning, not how fast they learned.
Here is a specific example. An algebra teacher is assessing student proficiency during instruction each day. The teacher assigns homework on a regular basis, may use ungraded quizzes a few times to monitor student learning, and uses a graded quiz each week. At the end of three weeks, the teacher uses a team-developed common assessment and tells students that if they demonstrate proficiency on the assessment, their lowest score of the unit will be dropped. If a student fails the exam, he or she is assigned to a week of intensive tutoring in the school’s intervention center during what would have been study hall, free time, or lunch. During this intervention period, the student keeps working and learning, putting in more time to acquire the intended skill. At the end of the week, he or she retakes the test and earns a C. The C should replace the F.
In this scenario, we would contend the assessment was formative even though the student received an initial grade of F because the assessment was used to identify a specific area of concern. The results were also used to provide the student with specific instruction and support aimed at helping him or her acquire an essential skill. By giving the student another opportunity to demonstrate that he or she learned, by replacing the F with the C, and by not continuing to punish the student for initial difficulty, he or she has an opportunity to earn a grade that reflects actual learning. Furthermore, the student has an incentive to do well the first time—to keep free time and eliminate the lowest grade of the unit.
Note that this requires a coordinated effort at several levels. The team must agree on the essential learnings and the common assessments they will create to monitor that learning. The team must address the variation in grading practices the question referenced. Members must decide what factors will go into determining a grade. They must also decide how much weight each factor should be given. For example, the math team must decide the weight given to homework, quizzes, and the unit exam. One teacher can’t count the exam for 10 percent of a student’s grade and another count it for 50 percent. And very importantly, there must be a systematic schoolwide approach to intervention. The teacher would be responsible for reporting which students need the intervention but not for providing the intervention or seeing to it that the student is placed there. That becomes an administrative responsibility.
We can continue the tradition of using assessment merely to prove what students have learned so we can assign a grade and move on, or we can use assessment to improve student learning when we insist that students who do not demonstrate proficiency keep working and learning until they do.