FAQ: What is the role of summative assessment?

by Chris Sturgis

What is the role of summative assessment?

Such a good question. I didn’t have an answer to this until I visited Champlain Valley Unified High School (CVU) on behalf of Mastery Transcript Consortium last fall.

CVU has intentionally and thoughtfully aligned grading policy with the goal of maximizing learning. They think of grading in the same way we use Global Positioning System (GPS) to find our way from one point to another. The learning targets are the destinations. How students perform on summative assessments are the blue dots that mark the path they are taking. If students are going a bit off-course (possibly because they are going deeper in areas that are of high interest) or taking a bit longer, they may need more coaching, intensive instruction, and support. But they are all going to get to the same destination eventually. That’s what mastery learning (also referred to as competency-based or proficiency-based) is about: ensuring every student succeeds.

The trick is that competency-based districts and schools must create balanced systems of assessments that ensures that the data generated through the assessment about student learning is used in timely and effective ways. Formative assessments need to produce productive feedback to students. Summative assessments need to be reflected upon and used for planning by students and teachers.

Summative assessments used solely to judge, rank and sort students doesn’t have anything to do with learning and is most likely creating a culture of fear that is a barrier to learning.

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