Sunday, February 7, 2010

Assessment - Giving Students A Choice

This weekend I've been reading a very thought-provoking blog post about summative assessment by Greg Thompson. I cannot possibly do justice to his excellent post here - you really need to read it for yourself to follow all his arguments. Greg talks about the value of apprenticeships and how adults gave formative and summative assessments by observing the apprentices and correcting them as they went along. He argues that in the industrial age students went to school and learnt things that had "no apparent purpose" and so testing became the means of assessing whether the students had learned anything - this worked well for assembly line jobs. The material they were learning had no creative or original thought, the jobs they were going to didn't involve any either. Nowadays, Greg argues,
Formative assessment, far too often, is given only cursory acknowledgment and all the eggs are put in the summative assessment basket. There is something fundamentally wrong with this current situation. Formative assessment is the most powerful of the assessments in helping students learn and move toward mastery. In fact formative assessment enables a teacher to determine incremental amounts of mastery as the student moves through the learning process. Done effectively it renders summative assessment redundant and unnecessary.
Greg's blog discusses the difference between convergent summative assessment, where there is one right answer, and divergent assessment where students have many possibilities to demonstrate their learning. He says:
Divergent assessment, by design, requires the use of the top layers of Bloom’s ideas about learning. Because students have achieved mastery along the way, of information and skills, they have a new embedded knowing that allows them to take their learning and apply it in ways that intrigue them and allow them to find purposeful meaning in their process. At this point, the restrictions are minimal – very minimal – and students are allowed to evidence their learning in powerful and meaning ways.
I think the most interesting thing here is that the final product "will look different for each student". For our current unit of inquiry in Grade 4, students have been inquiring into different belief systems. We decided, for the first time this year, to give students a choice about how to present their understandings. Some students chose to use drama, and their work was videoed and uploaded to YouTube, some students chose to use VoiceThread and others chose to interview people about their beliefs and to write out this interview. Here is an example of the final assessment of this unit by one of our Grade 4 classes. As the year goes on, I hope to give more classes the opportunity to make a choice about how they will be show their learning.


  1. Assessment is an area where I feel like public schools have it all wrong. The focus (because of state mandated testing) is on the summative assessment. The drive for summative assessment is so persasive that there is little time left for formative assessment and divergent assessment. I am looking for the day when there will be a shift toward better assessment practices. Assessment that allows students to demonstrate what they know and provides educators with a clear view of what needs to be re-explored, re-taught, and worked differently. I look forward to reading about your students journey in authentic assessment.

  2. I love your assessment examples. I can see that the most creative results come from empowering students to demonstrate what they've learned in their own ways.