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28 June 2014

Everything's a test -- there's no such thing as a "formative" or "summative" assessment

I don't think I had even heard the terms "formative assessment" and "summative assessment" until a year or two ago in connection with the new AP Physics 1 and 2 courses.*  If you're not familiar with them, the briefest definition I've discovered describes a summative assessment as an assessment of learning, while a formative assessment is an assessment for learning.   While I understand the meaning of the terms and their use in discussing how physics is taught, I have the deep-down suspicion that I'm hearing euphemisms reflecting some teachers' fundamental discomfort with the idea of a test.

* course materials written by education professors for education professors

Everything we do in our class is simultaneously a test and a learning opportunity.  The students -- and their teachers -- must get comfortable with the dual purpose of each activity.  In this sense, an academic class is no different from an athletic or artistic endeavor.  Basketball players are absolutely judged by the coach on their performance in practice and in games; nevertheless, unless the player's name is Iverson, both the game and practice provide opportunities for growth.  In the theatre, actors are judged by their peers and by the director in every rehearsal as well as in every performance; yet the best actors learn from both their successes and failures.

Each day, my students take a quiz and turn in a homework problem.  One might call these "formative assessments" because they are primarily for practice -- the students get constructive feedback about their knowledge and performance.  But I'm also acquiring information about my students' progress.  I need to know what they can do, both with collaboration and individually.  Both quizzes and homework count in my gradebook; the quizzes in particular often ask straight-up fact recall questions.  Thus, one would have to categorize each as "summative assessments" as well.  

Of course I give tests. I certainly call each one a "test," or even an "exam."  Tests are half of the term grade, with daily work counting the other half.  These two elements (75%) are combined with the trimester exam (25%) to get the overall trimester grade.  So my tests and exams are "summative assessments," right?  Wrong.  

Lyle Roelofs, the best college professor ever, explained that a test represents the only time when you can be positive that you have your students' full attention.  So, he suggested, make the students engage with the test questions that they get wrong in order to earn points back.  My students do test corrections, earning back half credit for anything they originally missed but then explain properly on the correction.  I've had colleagues complain that high-stakes testing is cruel and useless, that some exams should be replaced by more learning time.  My riposte: exam time is learning time.  It's the best learning time.  An exam used properly is the very definition of a "formative assessment."

To satisfy the sticklers among you, okay, each of my classes takes ONE "summative assessment" each year.  It's generally called the "AP Physics 1 Exam," or the "Conceptual Physics Final Exam."  These serious, high-stakes end-of-course exams are still tremendously useful teaching tools because they cause students to focus on a cumulative review that, without the high-stakes exam, would fall on deaf ears.  In other words, by the definitions above, the final exam is definitely "for learning," and could be categorized as formative.  So hah... my thesis stands.  Everything's a test, everything's a learning opportunity, and there's no point in making an artificial distinction between the formative and summative.

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