The Conversation Australia had a recent piece on the differences between summative and formative assessments. I think it’s important for students and parents to understand the nature of assessment because if we understand what it is then we also understand why it is being used and in what context. Having said that, I believe there is an over-reliance on summative assessments in schools. Summative is a narrow concept of assessing learning that produces a pass/fail or an arbitrary mark out of 100. Teachers use it to rate, grade or judge students but it contributes little else to the learner and their learning. While test scores may highlight gaps in student knowledge, it offers little else in terms of how students might close the gaps. And so it goes that teachers continue to press on, teaching more complex concepts without ensuring the foundations for learning are water-tight.
I believe we need to focus more on measuring and tracking student performance over time. When the Country Women’s Association (CWA) judge cakes or dance sport judges assess routines, they are not looking through a one dimensional lens. They award points across established criteria and they provide valuable feedback on what worked and what didn’t. The goal is for competitors to be continuously improving.
The advice from the NSW CWA to its judges highlights the nature of teaching, which is to help and encourage.
- use the occasion as a teaching/training opportunity
- offer helpful comments regarding entries….it makes more members want to bake and compete
- please encourage the junior [entrants] as they are the cooks of the future
It doesn’t matter whether students are learning to bake, dance the Waltz or solve complex maths problems. What matters is that these become the vehicles for achieving mastery and feedback supports the journey from novice to expert. As we know, summative assessments view learning as one dimensional and it is so much more than that.
Sal Khan of Khan Academy refers to this as the tragedy of lost potential. His point for schools is that learning should be about mastery not test scores.