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May 2, 2022

The Way We Talk About Assessment Matters

Focusing more on the process and less on the product will lead to the kind of learning that will set students up for future success.
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School Culture
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When I think about some of the most meaningful learning experiences I’ve had as an adult, they have almost always felt messy, disorderly, and recursive. I may read an article on a topic, get confused, and take notes on what I didn’t understand. That article may refer me to a podcast, which mentions a book that I track down. I connect new insights to old knowledge, change my thinking, and go down one rabbit hole after another. Often, I evaluate my ideas by asking my colleagues or mentors what they think. They validate my assumptions or poke holes in my conclusions. These interactions often lead to other interesting resources, conversations, and connections. Rarely, if ever, do I feel like I’ve reached an end to my learning. I may plateau or give attention to something else for a time, but those ideas I explored are always there, waiting for my return.
How we frame learning and assessment for many of our students unintentionally communicates falsehoods about what learning is or what it should be. As satisfying as it is to “cover” a set of clear outcomes and learning targets by the end of a six-week unit then wrap it up with an assessment, this model is not conducive to retaining knowledge or understanding over time. We are also communicating that the learning we do in school is not reflective of the learning we do outside of school. While shifts to adopt programs or pedagogy that incorporate real-world experiential learning, such as project-based learning, have become increasingly common, the adoption of one program may not be enough. We need to constantly interrogate the beliefs and practices that underpin our learning processes.

What’s Wrong with “Formative” and “Summative”?

About a decade ago, at the start of my teaching career, my school hosted a PD session run by Mark Church, coauthor of Making Thinking Visible (Jossey-Bass, 2011) and The Power of Making Thinking Visible (Jossey-Bass, 2020). Mark, who quickly became one of my teaching mentors, challenged a group of us to think about the culture of our classrooms—specifically in how we talked about assessments with students. Rhetorically, he asked us how natural we thought it was that 12- and 13-year-olds were using words like “formative” and “summative” to describe their work. At the time, we chuckled, but his attention to the language we were using with students stuck with me.
The terms “formative” and “summative” originated in a paper published by Michael Scriven in the Social Science Education Consortium in 1967. Scriven described the role of formative evaluation as a way “to discover deficiencies and successes in the intermediate versions of a new curriculum.” He defined summative evaluation as the “terminal evaluation” of a resource's efficacy (Scriven, 1967). These definitions, in all their teacher-centeredness, are references to the evaluation of specific curricular tools and resources. Like many educational terms, they were correctly modified over the years to center students and student learning.
Scriven’s definitions are a far cry from how most educators think today about formative assessment “as a way to monitor student learning and provide ongoing feedback” and summative assessment as a means “to evaluate student learning at the end of an instructional unit” (Carnegie-Mellon University, 2019). Somewhere along the line, these concepts became central to how many teachers talk about learning. These terms morphed from adjectives first heard in training programs to help teachers characterize assessments to nouns loaded with implicit value that students and parents have adopted into their school-related vernacular. In many cases, they have become synonymous with “quiz” and “test.”
At first glance, they may seem like harmless process-related terms. The problem is the underlying value that teachers, sometimes unknowingly, and students, almost automatically, attribute to these terms and to the corresponding work.

Classroom Terms Gone Awry

It never ceases to amaze me how often my 7th and 8th grade students ask me whether an assignment is “a formative” or “a summative.” It seems what they are really asking me is whether the assignment matters. In fact, when I ask them what the words mean to them, they usually say something to the effect of, “Well, you know, Mr. Kuehn, summatives are important.” The implication, of course, is that formative assessment is not important because summative assessments are “what really counts” in a final grade.
The apparent disregard students have for the process (what we might call formative assessment) and their hyperfocus on the product (the outcome of a summative assessment) does not facilitate independence, nor does it reflect authentic learning. Rather, it tends to be derived from the teacher. It communicates an end point to skills and knowledge acquisition, creating a false sense of closure that once the skills are “covered” or “learned,” they need not be addressed again.
In her book Culturally Responsive Teaching and The Brain, Zaretta Hammond describes learning as a “dynamic action.” She says that learning “requires focused attention, active engagement, and conscious processing by the learner” (Hammond, 2014). If we know that authentic learning, whether in school or in the world, is a dynamic action that necessitates processing by the learner, we need to be vigilant about the language we use to describe it. Unfortunately, the way that many students think about learning is in direct opposition to the idea of dynamic learning. Worse yet, students end up thinking that the end results matter more than the hallmarks of meaningful learning—ongoing practice, feedback, and reflection.

The Power of Language

Ron Ritchhart, a Senior Research Associate at Harvard University’s Project Zero, identified eight factors that play an active role in shaping our schools: time, opportunity, routines, language, modeling, relationships, physical environment, and expectations (Ritchhart, 2015). For example, in the context of my classroom, if I decide that I will dedicate time every lesson to recite passages of what I perceive to be great literature, students not only receive a message about what kind of thinking is valued in my class, but also about the learning disposition I want them to develop.
Conversely, if I allocate time for students to read independently in my class, students receive a very different message about what kind of thinking and behavior is important. Neither of these practices are inherently good or bad, but in both scenarios, how I choose to allocate time communicates a message about what I value in my classroom. The same thinking can be applied to each one of these forces. The opportunities we provide, the routines we use, and of course, the language we adopt all communicate a message.

If we know that authentic learning is a dynamic action that necessitates processing by the learner, we need to be vigilant about the language we use to describe it.

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As much as I’d love to say that my students always speak in precise language about their thinking and explore topics with joyful curiosity, it typically doesn’t work out that way. Inevitably, months into the school year, students still ask me whether an assignment is “formative” or “summative,” knowing full well that it will lead to an interrogation of what those words mean and why they chose to use them.
In those conversations, I use analogies to sports and ask students whether practice is more valuable than a game. We talk about how learning happens and why it’s helpful to focus on the process, habits, and dispositions, in addition to the final product. Usually, by the end of the conversation, students are more aware of why language matters. If students are continually asking these questions, though, we need to consider whether the messages we are sending are accurately conveying what we believe about learning.

Principles for Language Use

I’ve tried hard to pay attention to how I talk about assignments, tasks, and most importantly, student thinking. There are two main principles that have really helped.
The first is that instead of describing the “work” that I want students to do or outlining the steps of a task, I have consciously tried to name the thinking that I want them to do.
For example, if I am teaching students about identifying and interpreting themes in literature, I try to de-emphasize the tasks of the assignment (the how) and instead focus on the thinking (the what and why). Instead of saying “Today, you are going to learn how to identify a theme, develop a claim, and support your ideas with evidence,” I might modify it to, “Today, you are going to learn how to capture the heart of this story and build explanations for how an author conveyed their ideas.”
It may seem insignificant but shifting from a focus on the tasks to a focus on the thinking has two primary benefits. First, it suggests that learning is a function of thinking, not tasks; and second, emphasizing thinking, which is a staple of learning, increases teachers’ ability to leverage one another’s ideas to create cross-disciplinary, real-world application in our classrooms.
The second principle is that, when possible, I try to substitute the name of a task for its purpose.
For example, instead of a quiz, test, or assessment, I might refer to the task as a “check for understanding.” At first, students may ask whether or not it “counts in their grade” or if it is “going to be posted in the gradebook.” Usually, when students ask this, I semi-jokingly say that everything we do in class is graded. Then, I try to redirect to the learning outcomes I expect and exemplars of the kind of thinking I want students to approximate. The reason I say semi-jokingly is because it is actually true. I am assessing students all the time. The questions they ask, how they engage, and ultimately, the understanding they can express are all things I consider when evaluating their learning.
Interestingly, over time, I’ve found that by not answering the “grading” questions directly and not giving airtime to grades or the gradebook, students ask with much less frequency. By shifting to the learning outcomes I expect and exemplars of student thinking, I am communicating that what matters in my classroom is the thinking they can do, not the grade they will get.

Attending to Cultural Forces

One of the most inspirational aspects of being educators is that, on a daily basis, we are quite literally enacting the kind of world that we want to create. What we choose to think about and reflect upon will ultimately determine what our students are thinking about and reflecting upon. There is no one-size-fits-all answer to how we implement change.
Generally speaking, reforming our practice to focus on process, not product, would mean developing structures and systems of practices that encourage us to constantly think about the messages we are communicating to students. In regard to language specifically, it would mean that we become much more aware of how we talk about learning tasks, assignments, and assessments. It would also mean that we need to engage our colleagues and challenge assumptions about the terms “formative” and “summative,” and more broadly, assumptions in the language and culture we are creating around learning.
I’m not suggesting that schools unilaterally abolish the use of “formative” or “summative” in our classrooms. That act, in isolation, would likely result in an equally unhelpful substitute, much like how “formative” and “summative” effectively replaced “quiz” and “test.” If we were to implement structures and systems that encourage us to think critically about the language students are using to talk about learning, and more broadly, how language changes the way we interact in our classrooms and schools, we could begin to bridge the gap between how students think about learning at school and how students think about learning in the world. If we are successful, it would mean that school has achieved its ultimate objective—preparing students for the world they will inherit.

Carnegie Mellon University. (2019). What is the difference between formative and summative assessment? Eberly Center at Carnegie Mellon University.

Hammond, Z. (2014). Culturally responsive teaching & the brain: Promoting authentic engagement and rigor among culturally and linguistically diverse students. Corwin, A Sage Company.

Ritchhart, R. (2015). Creating cultures of thinking: The 8 forces we must master to truly transform our schools. Jossey-Bass.

Scriven, M. (1967). The methodology of evaluation (pp. 1–58). The Social Science Education Consortium.

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