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Assessment: Formative, Summative, Punitive?

For the first time since I have been supervising student teachers, I have a group at the start of the year, as opposed to my usual assignment at the latter half of the school year. This has brought to light a subject that I often fought against as a teacher, and now have to counsel student teachers on how best to approach the subject. Summer Reading: how do we assess it?

New York State’s recommendation for reading is that each student completes reading 25 books per year. Most adults don’t even approach that goal, but adults have to work and their time is committed  to other stuff. It is understandable that adults’ time must be dedicated to other stuff. Kids have more time to read than adults. In a 24 hour period a kid’s time is taken up by: one hour preparing to get to school, seven to eight hours in school, two hours extra-curricular (depending on the sports’ season), and one to two hours of homework. Let’s allow an hour and a half to eat dinner and chill. That has accounts for Eleven to Thirteen hours. If we consider the ten to twelve hours of recommended sleep, that would leave one to two hours per day that a kid could be, and should be reading to get to 25 books per year. It all works out on paper. I always loved the expression, “Man plans, and God laughs”.

For all of the reasons mentioned it is difficult to get all 25 books done in the school year. Of course, if you ever went into a Border’s Book’s during the summer when there was a Border’s Books, you would see an awesome display of Books for the Summer Reading Lists for your school. Summer reading is highly recommended to keep those young brains sparking away. Many districts assign multiple books to really charge up those summer-lazy brains. Hopefully, thought was given to those  book lists to be high interest level books of brevity, so there would be at least a chance of accomplishment. War and Peace is not a beach book. It has been my experience that those who make up these lists are often people who love reading and actually read 25 books per year or more. In their day, they must have been the best students, if we are to consider  the New York State recommendations as an indicator. I do believe that reading is important, and we should, most definitely, provide suggested lists to students for summer reading.

That being said, I need to talk a little bit about my understanding of assessment. I always approach assessment as a tool for the teacher. Formative assessment tells the teacher how well the teaching is going. Is there a reason to re-do something, or is it time to move on? Summative assessment is the final result. After all is said and done, how much was learned? It is like a chef who needs to taste the cooking until the diner gets the plate (formative). The diner tasting the meal is the final assessment (summative).

Now we move on to the point of all of this. Students are told that they MUST do the summer reading. This may be in more than one reading and in more than one academic subject. They are also told that there will be a test within a short period of time from the start of school which will go into their average. By the way tests are one form of assessment, so this test should be formative or summative. If the teacher is using it as formative assessment than it is testing how effective the lesson was, but there was no lesson. Therefore, it must be a summative assessment. How much learning was accomplished from the activity?

One would hope that in an ideal situation, we could get most of our students to at least an 85% achievement level. If the entire class did not get there, it might be necessary for the teacher to revisit a number of things to clarify and expand on some ideas. After all a good chef does this to complete the course for the summative assessment of the diner. Sometimes, if at first you don’t succeed… There is always a re-test after fine tuning. This would be wonderful if that was done.

This does not always occur in the real world of education. Some teachers give the final test and what  a student gets is what student gets. “You should have completed the reading.” “You had every opportunity and all the time of the summer to get it done.” “ You knew the rules going in.” “ This is the way our department does it.” “ That is what summer reading is all about.” “ I don’t make the rules, I follow them.” Does any of this sound familiar?

What does a failing grade on the summer reading test indicate? After all it is a summative assessment so it should tell us something. Does it indicate the student has a reading problem? Does it indicate that the student fails to make connections. Is it an indication that there is a problem with higher order thinking skills? Does it indicate a need for remediation? Are there emotional problems interfering with learning? These are all possibilities. This is what teachers should be asking of any summative assessment that identifies a student’s failure to learn.

Of course if these are not the questions being addressed by the teacher, there might be another reason for this assessment grade to be averaged into the student’s average. It is not assessment, but PUNISHMENT. The student did not do what he or she was told, and the student needs to pay a price in the form of a lowered average. That should require an asterisk on the grade at the end of the year stating that the average is not a true account of the student’s ability to learn. It has been skewed to account for punishment for not reading over the summer.

Many of those students who receive punishment for not reading do not take it as a constructive criticism, for that is not what it is. It is intended to be a negative experience, as all punishment is. That does not promote reading. There are many ways to assess things beyond a test. Group discussions, and projects based on the reading give reasons to students to complete the reading. Teachers need to remember that we are here to promote and nurture learning and not to punish students into submission. Leave that for the behavior policy. Assessment is not for punishment.

I am sure there will be comments on this and they are welcomed. I am off to read book number two, the year will soon be over!

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