Are Formative Assessments Disrupting Summative Tests?

By 12/05/2014

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Rabid debates about testing—what we test, how often, and the consequences thereof—are not new and are growing ever louder this year. As states continue to move toward standards-based reform, policymakers and administrators are shepherding in new assessment systems that align to those new, often higher standards. This process has not unfolded without its fair share of political and pedagogical debates.

At the same time, with the rise of blended learning we are also seeing the rise of low-touch formative assessments as a day-to-day reality in schools. These frequent formative assessments function as a teaching and learning tool to aid differentiated instruction. By getting a quick temperature check on student mastery or lack thereof, teachers can better tailor their instruction to students’ needs on a much more regular basis than in the era of pen-and-paper tests. But as these formative tests become more widespread and robust, they might also serve as an accountability mechanism, providing ongoing information on how students in schools across a given state are progressing. Could formative assessment, then, eventually supplant summative exams?

Maybe. This development is made immensely complex, however, by the mechanics of state-level education policy and the wide range of policy efforts that are reinforcing rather than breaking down the hegemony of summative assessments. This was glaringly clear during a session at the Foundation for Excellence in Education’s Nation Summit on Education Reform last week. The session, titled “Measurement 2.0,” featured state superintendents and education commissioners from Kentucky, Idaho, Florida, and Mississippi. The leaders described the standards and assessments guiding their school systems into the future. But over the course of the panel, there wasn’t a single mention of formative assessment, much less the rise of blended learning. Moreover, summative assessment sat at the core of many of the policy reforms that the leaders described: additional accountability levers such as teacher evaluation systems and statewide school report cards draw on data coming out of these summative tests to make determinations and comparisons regarding teacher and school-level performance.

When we analyze disruptive innovations, we look at the potential for new entrants to target nonconsumption and then gradually draw customers away from incumbents. Summative assessments—and the companies that administer them—are largely the incumbents in today’s teaching, learning, and accountability space. Certainly those incumbents are attentive to the role of formative assessments. Indeed, for Common Core assessment, PARCC (the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) and SBAC (Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium) have developed computer-based tests that include a number of interim assessments throughout the year in addition to the final, summative test. Perhaps even more important—and a potentially more disruptive route—for the growth of robust ongoing formative assessments, however, are the a wide range of online- learning programs and formative assessment platforms are also emerging as blended-learning tools that track students’ classroom progress on a regular basis. In a paper earlier this year, we discuss how a number of early adopter blended- learning school systems are using a variety of tools to constantly assess their students’ progress and to differentiate instruction.

State policymakers should be attentive to these developments in the blended- learning market. Of course these dashboards and online learning programs cannot do the complex work of accurately comparing and benchmarking school performance statewide or nationally. Not to mention, not all schools are blended and states need an accurate measure of what is happening across all of their schools, not only those invested in digital learning. Still, as technology improves, these edtech programs and tools only stand to improve. In the future, a students’ performance across a variety of programs and platforms will likely give us a much richer picture of how that student is performing against state standards, as compared to a once annual high stakes test. (Not to mention, as Michael Horn pointed out to me yesterday, these so-called high stakes tests are no stakes tests for students themselves, whereas assessments embedded in their day to day may actually motivate students to perform).

But the potential for formative assessment to continuously expand and improve will be stunted so long as we perpetuate summative assessment regimes and build interdependent policies that rely on those assessments to operate. This includes state-level teacher evaluation, report card, or school ranking policies that rely heavily on summative assessments; but also the federal ESEA’s emphasis on once-yearly tests that shaped state policy with the induction of No Child Left Behind. This reliance on summative will in turn stunt other policy efforts, such as competency-based education or seat-time waivers. Accountability efforts centered around once-yearly summative assessment are reifying time-based, cohort-based progression. A wholly new take on assessment sits at the fulcrum of a competency-based approach, whereby students can advance upon mastery. Even with seat-time waivers available to schools, then, requiring once-yearly summative assessments frustrate the possibility of a fully flexible progression, as students will be forced to take tests on subjects that they have already moved beyond or have not yet mastered.

My hope is that this is simply a matter of sequencing: states have worked extremely hard to establish higher standards over the past years, and they are currently reaching some agreement on how to test those standards, including developing the assessment items themselves contained in summative tests. Only then, states may be able move to more flexibility in terms how and when those items are administered and then expanding the role of ongoing, formative assessment throughout the school year. For every policy that a state department education or the federal government erects in connection with or reliant on summative assessment data, however, the longer it will take states to back off of “Measurement 2.0,” and realize the potential of formative assessment as a teaching, learning, and accountability tool.

-Julia Freeland

Julia Freeland is a research fellow in education at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation. This first appeared on the blog of the Christensen Institute.

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