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The Next Faithful Step

Formative Assessment not Summative Assessment

Scott Cormode, Fuller Seminary

I am presently teaching my second child to drive. It is going much better than with the first child. It would be tempting to say the second child is a better learner. But that would be a lie. The difference is how I have taught them. With the older child, I regularly made her feel defensive. And when she resisted me, I blamed her for being obstinate. But it was not her fault. I had created a learning environment that produced resistance rather than responsiveness. With the first child I practiced what is called summative assessment, and with the second I used formative assessment. Let me explain the difference.

The purpose of summative assessment is to assign a grade. Each of us knows that defensive feeling that comes from being graded. I remember writing my first paper in a junior high history class. I don’t much remember the comments the teacher wrote so must as I remember the bright red letter grade at the top of the page. And, of course, I remember arguing with my teacher about the grade. She told me what I didn’t properly do and my immediate response was to say that indeed I had done it. The same was true in college. And you would think that such a feeling would disappear once a person leaves school. But anyone who has ever had a performance review at work knows that is not true. That feeling of defensiveness that summative assessment creates stays with us throughout our lives. Summative assessment makes people defensiveIt channels them away from learning and toward justifying themselves. As a teacher, I may want to say that my intention is just the opposite. I want to enable learning by pointing out the places where a learner can improve. The problem is that (as the research has shown) my methods do not meet my intentions. I may want to enable learning, but in fact, summative assessment makes learning harder.

What is a better model? The purpose of formative assessment is to help the learner get better. If the poster child for summative assessment is the teacher with the fat, red marker, then the poster child for formative assessment might be my daughter’s ballet teacher. Picture a room full of six year olds in pink tights. When the teacher watched them dance, she did not render a judgment. She did not stride up to me and proclaim, “Your child is not graceful.” Of course, she wasn’t graceful. She was a six year old cursed with my genes. But that’s why she was at the dance class: to learn to simulate grace against all the genetic odds. The teacher did not render a judgment. Nor did she constantly point out what the kids were doing wrong—as I did when I taught my older daughter to drive. Instead, she constantly pointed out how the kids could improve. She gave them a target and kept pointing them toward it. She would shout, “Big arms. Big arms.” instead of scolding them for having their arms at their sides. She encouraged them forward.

Perhaps a more academic example may help. I arrived at graduate school as a poor writer. I thought long, complicated sentences made an author sound smart. Just before I left for grad school, I had submitted a scholarly article for publication. They accepted the article, but only on the condition that I have someone help me with my writing. I took the paper to one of my professors. The professor pointed out all the flaws but did not really tell me what to do differently. That’s summative assessment—and it really did not help me much on the article. I had a very different experience once I arrived in graduate school. My professor would mark up a draft of some paper. But he never wrote “awk” in the margins to tell me something was awkward. Instead, he took his soft No. 2 pencil and re-wrote the draft so that one convoluted sentence became two clear ones. And, at some point, I stopped trying to get a good grade and began instead trying to live into his standards. I still carry his voice with me every time I write. The other thing he did was to write pointed questions in the margins. “Is that really what the evidence says?” or “How will the reader know you mean X instead of Y?” His questions came as an invitation to improve rather than a judgment that I had failed. 

I tried to follow that professor’s model of formative assessment in teaching my younger daughter to drive. Just yesterday, we were working on pulling up to a curb to park. She was having problems because she would drift indecisively toward the curb and would inevitably run out of room before she reached the curb. With the first daughter, I would have said, “No…stop drifting.” That would make her defensive and it would not tell her how to improve. With the second daughter, I said, “OK, let’s stop and talk a moment.” Then I told her that she was drifting because she only turned the wheel toward the curb, when in fact she needed to turn the wheel twice—first to get the car moving toward the curb and then to get the car to straighten out and run parallel to the curb. Formative assessment involves giving the learner feedback that tells them how to improve. 

But there is a second aspect to formative assessment, one that comes out if I continue where I left off in the driving example. So after I told my daughter about turning the wheel twice, it was time to try it. And her first attempt did not go well. She started the second turn too late and ran right into the curb. That’s when the second part of formative assessment came into play. She reacted as if she had crashed the car—the look of worry, bracing herself for a scolding. Immediately I said, “That’s OK. That’s your first try. You did not crash the car. You hit a curb. No big deal. But now you understand why you have to turn the wheel a second time. You’ve got the idea now. Now you just have to practice it. So let’s try it again.” Formative assessment helps the learner see herself in a learning process. It leaves room for mistakes and failures—indeed, it expects them. But it does not dwell on them. Formative assessment keeps the learner moving forward.

Summative assessment makes people defensive. And defensive reasoning kills learning. Formative assessment, on the other hand, gives the learner specific ways to improve and continually invites the learner to take the next faithful step.