What is the point of assessment?

Girl believes tutoring can't help her catch up to her peers because she believes she is dumb

By Dan Blore, Educator

Have you ever asked yourself, “What is the point of assessment?”

Great teachers ask themselves that constantly.

Jump to 5-minute video explanation of Formative and Summative assessments
Jump to 2-minute video: Judging Good Assessment

As an adult, when is the last time you took an exam? We expect school to prepare children for a happy, constructive, successful adulthood in our society. But exams are not part of life in adulthood; so why emphasise them so much at school?

Nor are exams directly about learning. They’re a tool. They’re the easiest tool for diagnosing, measuring, ranking. But they’re not the most effective or accurate tool. Like using a hammer to drive home a screw, exams are not fit for purpose. They’re often doing a shoddy job, and “breaking” a lot of our children in the process.

Poorly executed assessments, at best, waste valuable time. But at worst, they develop anxieties and impede learning.

Recently, I’ve been talking one Year 9 student down from a state of extreme stress about an “impending” exam. His private-school emphasis on exam results has conditioned him to respond this way. Now his anxiety is preventing him from focusing and retaining the information he needs. And so it establishes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Instead of going into the room feeling confident, the whole time he thinks to himself about failing. I can see he will do fine in this particular assessment, but he would learn so much better if only he could tell his brain to relax!

Thankfully, this is becoming more widely recognised and understood, and better implemented. Australia is following a positive trend of changing focus from one-size-fits-all assessment for assessment’s sake, to a more varied suite of assessment techniques used for teaching and learning. But we’ve a way to go yet! So it’s important for you to understand how your child is being assessed. Balancing effective formative and summative assessment is part of creating the best educational environment for each individual. Let me explain…

Formative assessment

Formative assessment takes place during teaching/learning, as opposed to after the teaching/learning has finished. Teachers should use it to diagnose, monitor and provide ongoing feedback – methods which have been shown to substantially improve student outcomes.

Through formative assessment:

  • students become aware of their own strengths and weaknesses so that they have the opportunity to target those areas.
  • teachers can recognise where students are struggling, reassess their methods, and address problems.

Formative assessment can range from as informal as students answering questions in class, writing a few sentences about the current topic, or mini comprehensions tests, all the way to a formal exam for diagnostic purposes.

Traditionally this form of assessment has not been included in students ‘official’ grades, which have been traditionally from summative assessment. It is now being incorporated into grades as its value for measuring student progress is realised.

Summative assessment

Summative assessment takes place at the end of teaching/learning. Its purpose is to compare students against standard benchmarks and other students. This can be broadly useful, but when it comes to improving individuals’ learning and building confidence, measuring their own progress makes much more sense than measuring them against others. Just as you would not open your eyes to survey the traffic only after you’ve reached your destination, testing only after teaching completely misses the point.

To make results easily comparable across classes/schools/states/countries, these assessments have become extremely formalised. The rigidity of assessment methods and the anxiety leads some students to perform poorly in such assessments presenting an inaccurate picture of their learning, knowledge and capabilities. The poor grade further compounds their anxieties – imagine putting in the effort to successfully understand a concept, but because of the way you are assessed, it appears you haven’t put any effort in at all!

Misplaced emphasis

Children’s brains are formed by their environment. Repeated experience informs reaction and habit. Because of the formality, the “high stakes”, the judgement and comparison with others, many students’ brains grow to fear such assessment. We can talk ourselves blue trying to convince the conscious brain to overrule the subconscious, learnt responses. Instead, we focus away from high-stakes testing.

Conversely, I see many students excel in tests because they have a capacity to cram and regurgitate information, but scratch the surface and there is sometimes very little understanding. I’m less concerned about those students; the ability to give others what they want with little effort can be useful in society, but it speaks to the limitations and injustice of some testing.

Much school content is merely a steppingstone to higher-level thinking. It can be safely forgotten after Year 12 – and those who can easily do this will succeed at “the school game”. But ideally, school should build skills for interpreting new information and applying that to situations outside of school, in real life, not just in the examination room.

A happy balance

Through cognitive therapies, we eventually can teach students to consciously alleviate assessment anxiety, but it’s hard graft when confronted with the perpetual reinforcement of school assessments and social/familial pressures. That’s why schools are now trying to avoid the problems in the first place. Their best hope is to take the emphasis off summative exams and focus instead on “low stakes” ongoing formative assessment that bolsters the process of learning. We’re seeing better designed and varied summative assessments from schools and increased use of formative assessment. And rightly so :)

For more on interpreting test results, read: Latest Test Results vs. Learning Ahead – the bigger picture

TIPS for parents

  • DON’T overemphasise test results to students – particularly bad results.
  • DON’T expect content tutoring alone to improve every child’s test results
  • DON’T take test results as gospel – they miss many important variables
  • DO emphasise progress and effort.
  • DO help your child to relax in the lead up to tests.
  • DO ask teachers what formative assessment they undertake to inform your child’s learning
  • DO talk to us if you are concerned about your child’s learning

Video: Formative and Summative Assessment

Video: Queensland Criteria for Good Assessment

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About the Author: Dan Blore
Dan Blore manages and teaches at Extended Learning Centres. He has spent 20 years in education, having studied secondary education at University of the Sunshine Coast. He has taught in Australia and Germany and studied at university in Italy. He most enjoys teaching and studying mathematics and languages, both of which he focused on at university.

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