When I first began my career as a high school English teacher, I was blissfully unaware of the pressures of accountability tests and the impact they could have on students. However, since I taught the tested grade, I quickly learned that many of our practices would revolve around a multiple-choice assessment. Three times a year, I spent the six weeks preceding our state accountability test pulling specific ‘bubble’ kids from electives and tutoring them in areas that had proved problematic on prior tests. I began each class period with a test prep warm-up that was not always aligned to the content or topics we were studying.
As the May assessment date approached, we honed our test taking skills, focusing on process of elimination, decoding questions, and techniques for responding to passage-based questions. Individually, we understood that these assessments were not truly measuring all that a student knows and can do. Collectively, we knew that to pass muster, we had to ensure the passing rate to meet Annual Yearly Progress (AYP).
With the adoption of new College and Career Ready Standards, development of high-quality, standards-aligned assessments, and passage of ESSA, we might think that test prep frenzy should be a thing of the past; however, pep rallies and cram sessions are still held in many places in advance of high stakes assessments. The challenge is to avoid the allure of cramming sessions and instead ensure that rigorous instruction is happening daily throughout the school year–a few days of cramming is not an effective substitute for deep learning. So, the question becomes: how can we keep our focus on assessment for learning when summative assessment season is upon us?
Ample research supports the notion that assessment for learning, or formative assessment, practices strongly improve learning and student agency and should be the north star of all our efforts to improve educational outcomes. According to Dylan Wiliam, when done consistently, formative assessment has the potential to double the rate of student learning (2011). However, to harvest the rewards of the formative assessment process, it must be done consistently and in alignment with the expectations of the summative assessment and rigor of the standards.
Preparing students for their futures in a rapidly changing world is easier said than done. However, when we take a bird’s-eye view of our balanced assessment system, summative assessments are intended to certify learning at a specific point in time; whether at the end of a unit, marking period, semester, or school year. Summative assessments provide specific stakeholders (typically those furthest in proximity from day-to-day learning) information that is needed about the larger educational system.
If educators’ instructional tasks and assessments are aligned to the summative assessment, which is aligned to the rigorous expectations of the grade level standards, then student performance can be predicted and intentionally improved well in advance.
The unrecognized benefit of the summative assessment is the transparency it holds for teachers. Educators gain insight into what mastery of standards actually looks like. In other words, educators have a clearer understanding of what students should know and be able to do by the time they reach the end of the school year. Without this understanding, educators may default to their own interpretation of a standard or teach to a publisher’s interpretation of the standard based upon the curriculum being used, without alignment to the rigor and complexity of the summative assessment.
While test prep is a well-intended response to our accountability system, we must remember the deeper and more significant endeavor of preparing learners for college, career, and life. “All teachers have to undertake some summative assessment. They must report to parents and produce end-of-year reports as classes are due to move on to new teachers. However, the task of assessing pupils summatively for external purposes is clearly different from the task of assessing ongoing work to monitor and improve progress. Some argue that these two roles are so different that they should be kept apart. We do not see how this can be done, given that teachers must have some share of responsibility for the former and must take the leading responsibility for the latter.” (Black & Wiliam, 1998).
Although the task of the teacher can be complex and arduous, when the testing season is upon us, we need not fear. The results from summative assessments should never be a surprise. Instead, they should serve as a confirmation of what we already know about our students’ progress and achievement, since we have been formatively assessing throughout the year. With a clear understanding of the rigor and expectations of the standards, as well as a clear understanding of learning progressions, learners and educators can navigate, and more importantly, impact the trajectory of learning long before the summative assessment takes place.
Wiliam, D. (2011). Embedded formative assessment. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.
Black, Paul & Wiliam, Dylan (1998). Inside The Black Box. Phi Delta Kappan, 80(2) 139-44.
Assessment for Learning at Vista Unified School District, in Vista California.