Assessment for Learning: “Formative Assessment is a verb not a noun.”

This post is primarily motivated by my experience working in an international school predominantly influenced by an American model of curriculum and assessment. The debate around assessment and grading is somewhat different in UK schools and international schools influenced by the British system (if there really is such a thing given the autonomy of the education systems in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland!). It is far more heavily influenced by the work of Paul Black and Dylan William and the subsequent National Strategy for Assessment for Learning that affected all teachers in the UK.

Whilst not advocating the abolition of all grading in one fell swoop, for the anguish that it might cause some colleagues in the teaching profession, I do advocate for far less summative assessment, especially at the Elementary and Middle School levels, with the gradual phasing out of the practice of grading. As an alternative to graded assignments and tests, I advocate frequent peer and self-assessment, continuous oral feedback, and written comments on students work, suggesting ways for students to improve their work.

For many teachers and some Administrators, it will take a fundamental shift in mindset to come to terms with the fact that formative assessment should never be graded! After all, formative is a verb, not a noun. The references I have read of students “doing a formative” worry me as it displays a lack of understanding of student assessment. In supporting teachers in raising standards, we first need to ensure that they understand what formative assessment is per se. Looking over a child’s shoulder and asking them an open-ended question based upon their initial response is formative assessment. Saying “good job” or the like has no place or value in a modern classroom. How can you improve your work is a formative question and encourages students to think critically. And further giving the student the answer has no benefit to their learning.

Once a piece of work is graded, the student and the parent will often take little heed of formative comments. It is the teacher’s formative comments that provoke students to delve deeper into the topic. Good formative assessment celebrates the student’s successes and offers strategies for improvement and advice on developing a greater depth of knowledge and understanding. The only grade that could feasibly be awarded to the student is one of a summative nature, and this should come only at the end of an assignment. It is imperative that the teacher still offer formative comments and suggest a way by which a student might still further improve their work in generic terms that can be readily applied to other assignments and learning experiences.

To my mind, the most important assessment data is that generated by a “good” classroom teacher. I contest that summative assessment should only be conducted at the end of a unit of study. This is effectively between 6-8 times per year in reality. This might be complemented by the end of semester subject assessments/examinations. My only real reason for compromising and not completely advocating the throwing out of grades is parents’ expectations. By carrying out sporadic summative assessments, it will mean that parents will have regularly updated data on their child’s progress and will be able to see learning progress on a learning portal such as grade book. A grade book system must be set up to record summative assessment data, with no more than 10 updates per subject permissible and removing any averaging tool. Dr Justin Tarte succinctly demonstrates the problem with averaging grades and supports the extensive research of Professor Guskey at the University of Kentucky. Averages do not in any way reflect learning.

Essentially all Summative tests/exams should be formative in nature. Teachers must modify instruction based upon the performances of their students. Moreover, teachers must have a personalized approach when utilizing assessments to inform planning. They should seek to see where there are gaps in learning and understanding across the whole class and focus on the micro dimension of the individual student. The effective use of formative assessment subsequently informs differentiated planning and instruction.

When assessing student work, I would suggest a teacher adopts a strategy that considers the quality of the work as it is at a particular time in a particular place. This does not imply that all students should do the same work simultaneously but rather that formative feedback should be individualized and personal. In doing so, a teacher should model examples of work that the student should aspire to. Give children an opportunity to flourish and improve their academic performance. We don’t all get it right the first time, and we should not be afraid to fail. Furthermore, offer help and advice to the student on achieving the desired outcome or learning target. Use what you observe and the evidence you collect in planning future lessons.

I have compromised considerably on my philosophy relating to grading in the approach I suggest, as instinctively, I would abolish all grading up to Grade 8. However, in recognizing the educational climate and parents’ wishes, I offer such compromise in an attempt to encourage a much lesser emphasis on grading and a much great emphasis on learning. After all, we continually emphasize real-world learning experiences in modern education but perversely seek to grade these experiences.

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