The Limitations of Improving Summative Assessment

A year ago my school started a project of trying to improve the way we do summative assessment. We had lots of different systems and not a lot of coherence, and decided to move in the general direction of standards-based grading.

A year in, it was a great learning experience for me. I had used elements of standards-based grading before, but working to assess students in consistent ways across classes and deciding what is worth being consistent with was a valuable exercise.

Here’s the thing. We put in a ton of effort over a year. Assessment was a huge focus of our meeting time. And I’m not sure we saw particularly strong results. I do think what we did helped, I’m just skeptical that fiddling with grading is the best way to improve a school. As Shawn Cornally says, it’s like putting lipstick on a pig. The pig is the collection of institutional obligations we have that mean we have to give grades. The lipstick is our fancy new assessment plan, which is really just tinkering around the edges of a broken system.

I’m not an expert on the literature around professional learning, but I’ve been diving into research on how teachers improve this summer. When research looks at the elements of teaching practice that help teachers improve, summative assessment is conspicuously absent. Improving the curriculum matters, teachers’ pedagogical content knowledge matters, purposeful formative assessment matters. I’m sure more deliberate summative assessment helps too, but of all the levers that help to improve schools, it doesn’t seem like it’s very high on the list, and we only have so much time to spend on new initiatives.

This is also consistent with conversations I’ve had with lots of teachers who jumped on the standards-based grading train five or ten years ago when it was the hot new idea in town. Most of them are still using some elements of standards-based grading, but they’re also not too starry-eyed about the transformation that standards-based grading has the power to bring.

None of this skepticism makes me regret the work we’ve put in. I’m a more thoughtful teacher now than a year ago when it comes to assessment. But it does make me want to put my effort elsewhere in the coming year.

I know there are folks out there who disagree with me. I’m curious for some pushback. What am I missing?

2 thoughts on “The Limitations of Improving Summative Assessment

  1. Joey Kelly

    How (and how much) do your assessments affect the way that you teach?
    When I adopted my version of standards based grading, my curriculum changed because I was reteaching material with which we were unsuccessful the first time around. In other words, SBG transformed summative assessment into a formative ones. When I started experimenting with performance assessments, I put more energy into teaching the practice standards, and my assessments became a sort of lesson/assessment hybrid, where students were learning, not just performing.

    1. dkane47 Post author

      Got it. Maybe my definition of summative assessment here is too narrow — we’ve focused mostly on grades, and how they are delivered to students and reported to families. I can definitely see how what you’re describing has had a big impact on your practice. At the same time, it seems like a lot of your work has gone well beyond summative assessment?

      Maybe these distinctions are just too blurry to be useful anyway.


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