- Summative assessment counts towards your grades, but formative doesn’t
- You change your teaching based on formative assessment but not summative
- Summative assessments are formal but formative assessments are informal
There’s a confusion that causes stress when grades are involved. Grades are supposed to:
- Tell students where they stand in the class.
For me, and I think ideally for most of us, “where they stand in the class” is as close as possible to “how much of the subject they understand, and to what degree.” So, “they understand a lot and can really extend their knowledge to new areas” is encoded to an “A,” while “they’re getting it!” is encoded to a “C.”
Hopefully they’re not at a D, which means something like “I guess he has been in class. Most days.”
Great! The summative and formative (non)dichotomy is not causing any pain yet – here’s a summary of your knowledge, let’s respond to it. Boom. Active SBGers out there are thinking, “yeah, and since I’ve got it broken down into specific areas it’s way easier to get to that response part.”
Grades are sometimes also supposed to:
- Show how well your student stays on task
- Show how well your student can manage assignments or big projects
- other performance- but not understanding-based stuff
We make them mean those things by counting participation for 10% or homework completion for 20%. And it’s not unreasonable. We feel like it’s our job to a) teach math and b) raise responsible kids, and we have to cram a full report on both of those objectives into a single letter. There’s also c) get them all high scores on the Tests and sometimes d) keep them safe or e) provide a different view than they get at home and f) prepare them for the unknowable challenges of the 21st century-entury-entury.
When students are thinking, “does this count?” they aren’t thinking about any of your objectives. When parents are looking at a GPA (a smashing of all of these already overloaded encodings into a single number, if you can believe it!), they aren’t understanding if a) their kid knows math, OR b) their kid is behaving in class and doing his work.
And, ultimately, I think this is why we sometimes grab on to “formative assessment” as a way to get around the horrible restrictions and meaninglessness of most grades. We say, “it’s ok, it doesn’t count, class,” and if we’re lucky our students can relax enough to just enjoy learning something. ”This is just formative assessment – we’re just exploring to see what works,” as if there’s any other way of learning.
This is why active SBG is so great. It lets us give grades that mean something – “hi John, here are your grades,” and John can understand them and react to them and now you’re communicating with John about his learning. Don’t be fooled – these can still be grades that you record, that “count” – but you’re still helping John learn. My favorite part of teaching was being with the kids in class, because that’s where the learning actually happens. Grades are just administrative bullshit compared to that – unless they are also part of the learning process.
I think of active SBG as reclaiming grades as feedback, and de-emphasizing the evil baggage that can lead our students away from learning. For me, the difference between formative and summative isn’t very important. Instead, we’ve got to focus on the distinction between meaningful and meaningless.