Evaluating Summative Assessments

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This past week has been a great opportunity to reflect and plan out the new year.  I’m writing this as I sip my coffee on a chilly day in the midwest.  As I contemplate my plans I’m reminded of always to “keep the end in mind” as I think of how instruction eventually leads to a summative assessment.  I usually see the following procedure used for math instruction:

Introduction–> Formative Assessment –> Reflection –> Summative –> Reporting

Summative assessments have changed over the years.  One major factor that determines how these look at the K-5 level is based on the district resource that’s used.  There are so many math publishing companies that push their resources to districts and the unit tests generally accompany them.   There are formative assessments that teachers use, but they’re often used depending on teacher preference. Grade level teams often plan out the formative assessments, although it’s up to the individual teacher to use them.  The summative assessments are another story.  These are set in stone and given at specific intervals throughout the school year.

The summative assessments in some K-5 classes take a long time to complete.  The upper elementary classes take a lot more time than the lower.  The accelerated classes can take 1-3 instructional days to complete one summative assessment. Usually there’s another day reviewing the assessment afterwards. The unit assessments often include written component and an open response section.  Each math class is allocated around 60 minutes for math and students are given (not always though) as much time as they need to complete the assessment.  These summative assessments are solely used to communicate how well students are performing compared to the standards and that’s put on the report cards.  As schools move more towards standards-based grading the reliance of the summative assessments may increase. Middle and high school might manage this time differently as final exams and tests become more of a priority.  I wonder how this summative assessment time could be better managed moving forward.

As far as I can see, there a couple options to consider.

  • Prioritize the standards within a math unit and adjust the summative
  • Rely more on class quizzes and emphasize the summative less
  • Create new summative assessments that better reflect the standards
  • Continue without changing anything

There are consequences depending on what’s picked and I’m sure other options exist that I can’t think of right now.  Prioritizing standards will inevitably leave out some standards and students won’t be exposed to certain skills/concepts as frequently.  Relying on quizzes for grades has me wondering how many attempts are given before students are actually assessed.  This can be a challenge as some students might be exposed to a concept three times, while another might have seven.  Is one student better prepared for the summative than the other?  Creating new summative assessments might be a good option if time is available to do so.  I’ve heard multiple times that teachers aren’t trained to write assessments, but I find that there input to be very valuable in the process.

I don’t believe there’s one right solution to this issue, but it’s worth contemplating a few different ideas.  I’m interested in hearing how others manage the summative assessment process.

Formative Assessment Gems

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My own formative assessments have changed over the years. Being able to quickly assess where a student is at in relation to the standard helps me make decisions. These decisions impact classroom lessons and activities. I’ve always been a fan of exit slips and quick review checkpoints that see if students understand what was discussed during a particular lesson. Most of these take on a paper form. In fact, one year my district’s math committee spent almost an entire year working on these types of formative assessments. I still use some of these and find them valuable. These exit slips are usually split into a half-sheet with a small amount of questions related to the skill for that day. Students complete it in around 5-10 minutes.

This year I’ve been relying a bit more on digital formative assessments. These projects involve having students explain their math reasoning through some type of digital recording.  Lately I’ve been using Recap (Thanks Kirk!) and Explain Everything for this. Students generally follow a rubric and submit their file to me via SeeSaw or Showbie. In my experience, audio or video formative checkpoints are much more valuable than other formative assessments. Not only can I view these checkpoints at a later time, I can also check for vocabulary use and hidden misconceptions that a student may have adopted along the way. I generally can’t uncover that as easily with an exit card.  Moreover, students and parents can review their recordings over time.

I believe all formative assessments have some type of value. The extent of the value depends on how it the checkpoint is used. Blending formative assessment strategies has its advantages. I want to be able to gauge student understanding and give feedback that helps connect understanding. This isn’t always possible with standard curriculum guides.   Looking beyond the traditional blackline masters may yield better results.

Assessments and Growth Mindset

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School has been in session for over month and many of my classes had a unit assessment last week.  The district adopted math program has 10-12 unit checkpoints (depending on the grade level) for the school year and each assessment covers specified math strands.  These assessments are designed to assess understanding and include an open response that emphasizes students’ conceptual understanding and math communication skills.  The entire unit assessment takes about 50+ minutes to complete.

I usually try to administer and grade all the tests on the same day.  This doesn’t always happen.  Before passing the tests back to the students the class generally has a discussion about certain problems that were missed more than others.

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What’s up with problem eight ?

We also have celebrations as a class.  During the class discussion we don’t blame, but reflect on what the numbers might mean.  This idea has taken time to cement and required a bit of modeling.  Based on the results I might even teach a brief mini lesson to help address and reduce misconceptions.  This is also an opportunity for students to analyze their own test and look for correlations.  Afterwards, students are given a sheet to reflect on their own analysis. Students are asked to review their assessment and give feedback on their own performance.

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Click for file

After the students fill out the above sheet they visit the teacher for a brief conference.  These last a quick 2-3 minutes and include a time to check-in with the student. We have a conversation about the student’s reflection and look for opportunities to improve in the future.  This is also a time to set some possible goals.  The sheet is glued into the student’s math journal and can be a document that the student will look back on as the year progresses.

I feel like the process of analyzing, reflecting and setting goals is important.  I believe it reinforces a growth mindset mentality, but it also has me wondering about the role of different assessments in the learning process.  I’d say about 95% of what is used at the elementary level is formative.  I could see how that changes as students progress through middle and high school.  Feedback and the possibility to make positive strides towards improvement can often be utilized with most assessments, regardless if you label it formative or summative.  If a school truly embraces a growth mindset model, what role do summative assessments play? I believe that summative assessments have a role.  I’m just thinking that they may be perceived a bit differently if a school emphasizes a growth mindset model.


image credit: Woodley Wonderworks