The ‘F’ word

“Miss, is this a formative or a summative?”

That word: formative. In my classroom, it’s almost as bad as that other f-word. (Likewise, the s-word is summative.)

Over the past few years, I have been asked that question more often than I can count. What most students really mean by that is: “Is this graded?”, which is code for: “How much effort do I really need to put into this task?” or “Should I worry about this? How much will it hurt me?”

Assessment itself is such a huge, nebulous concept, and I could never distill everything that has been researched and written about assessment into one blog post. Besides, there are many, many experts who have devoted their careers to assessment who could probably say it much better than I. But if I could sum up everything I have learned about assessment through my own research and practice, it would be this: Assessment is not a thing, it is a process, and the language we use to describe elements of the assessment process matter.

I wonder how this language started to creep into classroom discourse. Was it students who picked up on teachers’ lingo and appropriated it for their own use, or the other way around? It’s kind of a chicken and egg scenario. I know that, as a student myself, I was never aware of the words formative and summative. I guess the closest equivalent would have been classwork versus tests. I always knew tests counted for more, but in the US public school system I attended (the same system in which I started my teaching career), every single piece of work that a student produced was graded (i.e., summative, an assessment of learning). Because of this, tasks were often designed to be enable teachers to provide the quickest possible feedback, which very often did not help students move forward in their learning. Looking back now, I wonder how many students I shortchanged because of the way the system was designed. I’m not sure if this has changed since I left the US in 2006 (I certainly hope it has!), but when I started teaching within the IB system over a decade ago, I suddenly felt a sense of liberation: I could actually focus on students’ learning as opposed to merely making judgements.

The idealist in me would like to believe that grades don’t matter, that they are just like mile markers; grades themselves are not the destination. But the realist in me knows that grades do matter because universities and other external agencies often place more value on the number than on the learner.

I know that this obsession with grades is part of a wider issue related to learning cultures (micro and macro: from the classroom all the way up to the national level), but I also know that our language plays a role, and if we can be more mindful of the way we talk about assessment, then perhaps we can start to change mindsets. And if we, as teachers, keep referring to formative tasks or summative tasks, we will never get students to see assessment as anything more than a single event.

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