In a post on the NCTE blog, Barbara Cambridge writes in part:
I am encouraged that we are beginning to distinguish between formative and summative assessment, not to affirm one over the other but to accent that each serves a particular purpose, formative primarily to improve teaching and learning and summative primarily to answer accountability needs.
At the same time that we make that distinction, however, we might also think how doing each kind of assessment might affect the other kind. To return to the AFT forum Kent referred to, listen to points made by Paul Barton in a forum presentation labeled “‘Failing’ or ‘Succeeding’ Schools: How Can We Tell?” Barton makes four points about accountability data, the kind of data most often generated by summative assessments.
First, Barton contends that current practices ignore basic standards of accountability because curricula and tests are not yet aligned. Test scores used for accountability are invalid if alignment is not in order. My take from this point: Pedagogy, curriculum, and formative assessment need to track with summative assessment.
Secondly, Barton states that a series of snapshots of students in different years does not measure what is learned by a student in a certain school year. Barton recommends administering the same test at the beginning and the end of the school year. My take on this point: Formative assessments can be used to track progress during that school year so that students can be helped to make more progress between summative assessments .
Thirdly, Barton says gains measured during the school year should be transparent to everyone, especially teachers and parents. Transparency would be supported by having student identifiers to track students from grade to grade or by stretch tests that cover several grades worth of work but are taken each year. Tests, however, are really not needed every year. Samples, rotating testing, or testing on an unannounced basis would free time for more diagnostic testing (formative assessment), which research shows improves instruction. My take on this point: A system of testing periodically can serve accountability while honoring more frequent formative assessment that serves teaching and learning.
Fourthly, standards need to be set for how much gain is expected in a year. Teachers need to say what is typical at a low end and at a high end. We can still have high expectations and disaggregate by subgroup under this standards system. My take on this point: Hurray that teachers are identified as the professionals who should set standards.
Each of Barton’s points, it seems to me, recognizes the (potential) interaction of formative and summative assessment.
I want to comment on the points made as Cambridge relies so heavily on Barton for her analysis. I must begin by addressing the problems with the current obsession with notions of assessment and evaluation. As I have said many times in the past, the current reliance on technocratic solutions begs the question regarding the purpose of education in the first instance. The overarching problem with the reliance on assessment and standards is precisely the reliance on predefined outcomes as a substitution for real education, for real learning. It is somewhat akin to coffee without caffeine or wine without alcohol (Žižek, 2003), virtual reality is substituted for reality. The obsession with test scores, curriculum alignment, and the like creates the phantasm of real education allowing for the maintenance of the status quo, or worse, plunging the system of public education into the abyss of what Žižek (2002) references as the “Desert of the Real.”
The first of Barton’s points is that “current practices ignore basic standards of accountability because curricula and tests are not yet aligned.” The underlying assumption here is that by aligning curriculum with assessments one will know with some degree of precision what is being learned, and by implication, what is being taught. The argument is a technocratic, utilitarian view of what should occur in schools, a neatly packaged Utopian understanding rather than one that addresses the complexities of teaching and learning, the multiplicity of contexts, interactions, and the like that make classrooms messy, nuanced spaces that require well developed professional judgment and flexibility in response to changing circumstances. Notions of alignment of curriculum to assessment deny the complexity in favor of packaging, of sound bites, of billboard slogans.
According to Cambridge, Barton’s second point, that “a series of snapshots of students in different years does not measure what is learned by a student in a certain school year,” is well taken. Her solution, however, fails to inspire. She states, “Formative assessments can be used to track progress during that school year so that students can be helped to make more progress between summative assessments.” Here she relies on Barton’s position that the way to overcome prior learning in any given school year is to pre-test and post-test thereby controlling for prior learning. Cambridge translates that idea into a distinction between formative and summative assessment but this is a solution that merely extends the utilitarian view that testing accounts for learning, at best a naive position.
Barton’s third point, that “gains measured during the school year should be transparent to everyone, especially teachers and parents,” presents an interesting problem. In the first place one must have faith that what is measured by testing actually represents gains in student knowledge. It seems that Barton’s first point negates this possibility unless, somehow, pains are taken to actually align curriculum with assessments. More curious, however, is Cambridge’s take on this point. When Cambridge states, “A system of testing periodically can serve accountability while honoring more frequent formative assessment that serves teaching and learning,” she seems to be privileging formative assessment without admitting to the potential problem that formative assessment is created to simply mirror the summative assessment thereby training (as one might train a seal, a dog, or a dancing bear) to perform well on the only test that counts, the summative assessment. Too many contradictions to suit my take on all this.
Barton’s final point according to Cambridge is that “standards need to be set for how much gain is expected in a year. Teachers need to say what is typical at a low end and at a high end. We can still have high expectations and disaggregate by subgroup under this standards system.” Where do I start. The whole notion that specific gain can somehow be measured represents a view of human nature that reduces everything to a number or a set of numbers. From my vantage point, that of a teacher of literacy, I tend not to trust the Positivists faith in this form of reductionism. Quite the contrary, I trust words, stories, narratives–NOT NUMBERS! Oh how I hate to shout, but English teachers need to shout from time to time. I am disheartened by Cambridge’s response as she cheers the notion that teachers should set standards. Well, duh! Of course teachers should set standards. But, when imposed assessments, notions of formative and summative assessments, dictated standards and the like are the norm, teachers will be reduced to nothing more than conduits for the transmission of the standards to children who are, in turn, reduced to nothing more than a number.
Žižek, S. (2002). Welcome to the desert of the real: Five essays on September 11 and related dates. London: Verso.
Žižek, S. (2003). The puppet and the dwarf: The perverse core of Christianity. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
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