Summative vs Formative Assessment
At Northstar we believe assessment should first and foremost be a tool for students themselves to learn about their own progress and reflect on whether they are using the most appropriate strategies to reach their learning goals. For this to happen, we must give students feedback during the learning process and not just at the end of it. Traditional schools have relied on summative assessments such as end of year exams for ages, but students learn very little from just receiving a final mark: they don’t understand their strengths and weaknesses, they don’t receive guidance on how to improve, and they have no idea about the progress they have made. All they have is a mark that at best helps them feel relieved until the next test comes and at worst instills in them a sense of inadequacy and hopelessness about their abilities and future.
At Northstar, we know that such a scenario is not conducive to learning. Rather than focusing on final marks, we think of learning as a process, a journey of constant exploration and reflection that allows students to deepen their understanding along the way. To help this process, we practice formative assessments on a weekly or monthly basis in order for students to follow their own progress, understand their strengths and weaknesses and, perhaps most importantly, reflect on how to improve their learning by sticking with or shifting strategies.
At Northstar, we believe that all students are different, have different interests and starting points and learn in different ways. For this reason, we understand that the only useful comparison of progress and ability that a student can make is to him or herself over time. Through formative assessments and only comparing performance with their own previous performance, students not only gain a real sense of achievement and encouragement to continue their learning pursuits, they also avoid the feelings of stress, inadequacy and hopelessness that a more competitive, summative-only school environment nurtures.
New Ways of Assessing Learning
Summative assessments typically take the form of a standardized test. Standardized testing is useful to compare and rank student performance, but one of its inherent flaws is the assumption that all students learn and can be assessed the same way. It does not take into account that students have different learning preferences such as visual, auditory and oral, and that not all students are best at demonstrating their learning in the way the test asks – usually through timed writing. What’s more is that those types of assessments are poor mirrors of the challenges students will be asked to solve in the real world which rarely involve such activities as timed writing, but rely on skills such as collaboration, imagination, communication and presentation.
At Northstar, our students will be doing the required standardized summative assessments for them to be considered for further study, but our formative assessments will take a different form – one that we believe is more aligned with good learning strategies. Assessment is a way to measure student understanding, and we think that there are multiple ways for students to express and document their learning.
In many of these cases, making learning and progress visible not only helps the teacher gauge the students’ understanding, it also serves as inspiration for other students in their work.