Thinking beyond the summative assessment task



Countless hours have been spent as teaching teams sit staring at a screen trying to agree on a summative assessment task. The purpose of these summative assessment tasks is supposed to be to check for understanding, to see how the students’ understanding of the concepts explored during a unit of inquiry has developed.

Each one of those sessions may have gone absolutely nowhere, and signifies a misconception that exists in many schools today – that a one-size-fits-all summative assessment task will tell you about each individual student’s level of understanding.

There are seven flaws here:

  • The majority of these conversations are firmly within the realms of “what will we do?” and almost all remain in that realm without ever considering “why are we doing this?”.
  • Many teaching teams teach units of inquiry without ever really figuring out what it is they are hoping students will understand. As a result, their chances of being able to assess student understanding is negligible right from the start.
  • Many teaching teams have a limited understanding of what understanding actually is and so struggle to concentrate or remain motivated during strenuous planning sessions. Often you will hear complaints of being “brain dead at the end of the day” or “I can’t stand semantics” or “we’re just going round and round in circles”. The process of figuring out the enduring understandings of a unit of inquiry is often abandoned completely, done in a hurry to appease those who wish to leave or done by one or two teachers on the team with the intelligence or commitment to make it happen.
  • Very often, summative assessment tasks are designed that actually assess completely the wrong thing by mistake, and the understandings are left untouched  and hidden behind the task itself. Getting all of the students to do a written summative assessment task, for example, is actually an assessment of their writing – not their understanding. Getting all of the students to do a presentation is actually an assessment of their ability to make and deliver a presentation – not their understanding. Getting all of the students to make a video is actually assessing their ability to make a video – not their understanding.
  • Many summative assessment tasks become grand projects or productions that shift the emphasis completely away from the understanding and towards the task itself.
  • The most effective and powerful ways for the students to demonstrate their understanding may only become clear as the unit evolves. Indeed, if we watch our students closely and listen to their thinking, the most powerful and effective ways to assess may actually come from them.
  • Summative assessment tasks are simply too late. If you and the students find out they don’t understand something at the end of the unit (because it really is just about us finishing off the learning, right?) then it’s too late isn’t? If you’re using formative assessment and actually watching the students closely throughout the unit, you should know exactly how the students’ understanding is developing, or not. If you find out at the end… well…um… what have you been doing for six weeks?
  • Not all students are able to express their understanding in the same way.

So, next time you’re sitting around a table with a group of people who are trying to make a one-size-fits-all summative assessment task… perhaps suggest that you don’t bother. Instead, explore the following steps:

  • Ensure everyone responsible for teaching the unit has a good understanding themselves of the understandings you are all trying to develop in the students. You’d be amazed how often this is not the case.
  • Ensure you have created a tool, such as a good rubric, that can be used right from the start of the unit as a way to guide students towards the understandings you are hoping for.
  • Ensure that there is constant, ongoing formative assessment and reflection that continue to give a picture of how each student is developing as the unit progresses.
  • As the unit progresses, share the learning that is going with your teams so that your shared understandings of the unit are strengthened, moderated and challenged.
  • Look for opportunities to help your students transfer what they are learning to new contexts so you can see if they really are understanding the concepts involved.

Very often, the key to achieving all of these things lies in assessing the same way that you teach. If you are teaching in a problem-solving, open-ended style that leaves plenty of space for critical thinking and inquiry… then assessing their understanding will be easier. If however, you are teaching in chunks of discrete, prescriptive learning in which there is little or no space for inquiry, problem-solving  or critical thinking, assessing understanding becomes virtually impossible.

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