Came across an interesting challenge by @purposeducation – #500words campaign, This week the topic is #purposedassess, so here goes…
Everyone knows that there’s two different types of assessment, right? There’s summative assessment which is all about finding out whether students have learnt everything they’ve been taught. This is the kind of assessment that the media reports on and which schools are judged on. GCSEs, SATs, A levels etc.
Then there’s formative assessment, or Assessment for Learning as its been rebranded. This is all about finding out what kind of progress students are making. This is (hopefully) what goes on in classrooms day in day out. If this isn’t what’s happening then frankly, I despair. Research (check on Dylan Wiliam’s Inside the Black Box) clearly shows that formatively assessing students’ work is the single most important thing you can do as a teacher.
The point of summative assessment is to classify and make judgements on people and institutions. Obviously this is important, but what happens is that we fall into the trap of ignoring anything we can’t measure. As Einstein said, not everything that counts can be counted. Most education systems seem to concentrate on a very narrow range of academic achievement and don’t value anyone who doesn’t succeed within this range. Sir Ken Robinson has a lot of very interesting things to say on this subject in his wonderful book The Element. He says that most education systems are designed to meet the needs of the Industrial Revolution and are failing the needs of the post-digital age where many of the children we are currently teaching will be doing jobs that have not yet been thought of using technologies that haven’t been invented. Summative assessment is all about trying to provided a fixed determination on what is good and whether we’ve achieved it. If you don’t meet the grade, you’re a failure.
Formative assessment, on the other hand, is all about finding out how individuals learn and tailoring future learning to ensure that their needs are met. It’s about giving students a toolkit to be able to make their own judgements on their progress and what they need to do to further improve. Assessment for learning allows students to take control of their education and encourages them to adopt a growth mindset: failure is a learning opportunity and lets teachers and students know what to concentrate on next.
Basically, the benefits of formative assessment can be summarised as:

  • Students learn more effectively
  • Students feel more involved in the schooling process and become less disaffected
  • Teaching is focused more effectively on the individual student
  • Positive effects may be particularly evident in the less able
  • Learning in the wider (not subject-specific) sense can be enhanced as students become more confident with taking risks.

So, what’s the point of assessment? Is to decide who has failed and who has succeed with a narrow and outdated educational paradigm? Or is it to hand young people the reins of their own learning and allow them to become the risk-taking, free-thinking, creative individuals we’ll need in the wide uncertain future?