More on Developing EVERY Formative Assessment Together

Yesterday was a pretty terrific day of learning for me. 

After writing my bit answering a reader's question about whether or not learning teams should develop EVERY formative assessment together, I had a LONG conversation — both on Twitter and in the comment section of the previous post — about assessment with some of my favorite digital friends. 

I heard from Matt Townsley and Russ Goerend — two guys who do a TON of thinking about assessment.  I heard from Mike Fisher — who has an ability to cut to the core of an issue like nobody's business — and from Marisa Dahl, whose follow-up questions still have me thinking.

Here are three takeaways from those conversations.

The words "formative" and "summative" may be more harmful than they are helpful.

Every time that I get into conversations about assessments, people want to know whether I'm talking about formative or summative tasks. 

It's almost like we have an unhealthy obsession to drop ANYTHING that we do to measure the progress that kids make towards mastering essential objectives into one of those two boxes — and we can't collectively move forward until we KNOW whether our tasks are formative or summative.

Heck, I've been on learning teams that spent more time wrestling with whether something was formative or summative than we did wrestling with whether or not an assessment was an accurate reflection of student learning!

For what it's worth, I see formative assessment as an ongoing, fluid process. 

It is anything that you do during the course of an instructional sequence to gather information about student learning and it should be used to direct the next steps that you take with your students.  It is designed to inform teachers and students about progress.

Teams CAN develop formative assessments together, but my worry is that if teams think that EVERY formative assessment MUST be developed together — and (worse yet) delivered at the same time — they'll stop trying to gather information about what students are learning on a day-to-day basis. 

Instead, they'll wait until the date of the next regularly scheduled and collaboratively developed common formative assessment to figure out if their kids are "getting it" when the more responsible action would be to gather and act on information immediately.  

And for what it's worth, I see summative assessment as a product.

It is any task that you give kids at the end of an instructional sequence to evaluate their mastery of the key knowledge and skills that you've been working with.  It is designed to provide a summary of just what students have learned. 

Just as importantly, summative assessments are the structuring tools of a learning team.  Once they've been developed collectively, they provide clarity to teachers about what they SHOULD be teaching on a daily basis. 

Reading a summative assessment should be like reading a list of the content and skills that learning teams PROMISE to move every child towards over the course of a unit of instruction.

But whether an assessment is formative or summative isn't what's important, y'all.

What's important is that teams have agreed to teach the SAME essential knowledge and skills to EVERY child in a grade level or a content discipline. 

What's important is that teachers are constantly measuring progress DURING an instructional sequence — and taking action on the information that they gather. 

What's important is that teachers have shared tools that they can use as an accurate reflection of just what a student knows once an instructional sequence is over. 

If your learning team is doing all of those things, you've moved beyond simple assessment OF learning and towards assessment FOR learning — even if you can't agree on whether a specific task is formative or summative.


Everyone has different expectations for what formative and summative assessments should LOOK like. 

Are you ready for this:  "Summative assessments" on my learning team are short, 10-question assessments that we deliver every two or three weeks. 

Now I'd bet that many readers would see "summative assessments" as much longer — old school unit tests delivered less frequently. 

That makes conversations about whether every assessment should be "common" a heck of a lot more difficult to have. 

When you suggest to my team that "summative assessments" have to be 58-question unit tests, we push back because we give our version of "summative assessments" every other week. No one wants to develop and deliver 58-question tests that frequently.

But when you suggest to people who see "summative assessments" as 58-question unit tests that are delivered at the end of an entire unit that "formative assessments" don't ALL have to be common, they worry about waiting so long to have a collaborative conversation about student progress.

That's why I recommend that teams have a meaningful conversation about the PURPOSE of each assessment before ever trying to label it "formative" or "summative."

Understanding that a formative assessment is designed to help you to change course DURING an instructional sequence and that a summative assessment is designed to summarize what you know about student mastery AFTER an instructional sequence is an essential first step towards deciding whether or not your learning team has the right kinds of assessment practices in place, no matter what they are called.


Learning teams wrestling with common assessments really ARE crippled by the Tyrrany of Or.

In From Good to Great, Jim Collins makes a point that I think EVERY learning team needs to keep in the forefront of their collaborative minds:  "Or" can be one of the most destructive words for groups that are trying to make progress on critical issues simply because it forces teams to make "all-or-nothing" decisions — and "all-or-nothing" decisions are inherently crippling. 

Think about that in the context of this conversation:  The choice teams are making — and that I'm suggesting — ISN'T between "Teams should create EVERY formative assessment together" and "Teams shouldn't create ANY formative assessments together."

Instead, I'm suggesting that teams find a comfortable balance between those two very different points on the assessment spectrum. 

Could you create a place where you had enough common formative assessments to make shared conversations about student mastery possible AND still encouraged teachers to independently assess, adjust and react based on what they are seeing in their own rooms?


Does any of this make sense?  More importantly, does any of this help you to frame your own thinking around what responsible assessment on a professional learning team is supposed to look like?



Related Radical Reads:

Should #atplc Teams Develop EVERY Formative Assessment Together?

Common Assessments are the CORNERSTONE of #atplc Work


4 thoughts on “More on Developing EVERY Formative Assessment Together

  1. Robert Huxley

    Hello Bill,
    I agree the formative-summative debate is a false one. If you are looking for academic support from a British perspective try Taras, M. 2009 “Summative assessment: the missing link for formative asessment”. Hutchinson and Young 2011 “Assessment for learning in the accountability era” gives a Scottish perspective. It focuses more on the language problem that we have in Quebec.
    French has no word for assessment. Everything is an evaluation. The curriculum insists on “formative” but when you stick “evaluation” all kinds of discussion takes place!
    Thanks for the “or” warning. It gives a new perspective on a persistent situation at my school.

  2. Mike Kaechele

    I wanted to respond to your first post but never got around to it. I used standard based grading so I would agree with the “always formative” viewpoint as students can always re-assess.
    I have been reading Postman and Weingartner’s Teaching as a Subversive Activity and I am questioning the philosophy behind your whole discussion.
    Why do we need common assessments at all? Why is it important that every student learns the same things? How do teacher driven assessments and standards kill student motivation and interest in school? What would students choose to study and why don’t they get any say in what they learn?
    You emphasis how hard it is to get 11 people to agree, well we now are forcing thousands to agree with the Common Core and the testing that goes with it. I hate the Federal government shoving standards down my throat as a teacher. I wonder if that’s how students feel about the standards we force on them?

  3. Janet Abercrombie

    It’s not about the assessment – it’s about the standard(s).
    At any point in the teaching process, I should be able to answer the question “To what extent is each child approaching, meeting, or exceeding the standard?”
    It is good for teams of teachers to meet and say, “How are students doing on x-project or x-standard.” Teachers can talk through what they are noticing. This does not have to be a formal process. Call it formative or whatever, but teachers discuss what they currently see in relation to the standard and adjust instruction accordingly.
    Teachers should have a good idea of what students’ final projects or tasks will look like before they are submitted. Teachers can look at final projects for a summative assessment – but by the time they do that, teachers may have moved on to another unit.
    Focus on student work in relation to the standards.

  4. Medahl

    Thank you for this response. I will take away that not ALL formative assessments need to be common, those things we do everyday in our classroom to check for understanding don’t have to be common. Makes sense, I may have been over-thinking and thinking too drastic.

Comments are closed.