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  • Steven Delpome

The Myth of Formative Assessment


4th of July weekend is here. You just had a new pool installed in the spring and you’ve invited all of your friends and family over to enjoy! Music. Games. Tons of food. Kids are having all kinds of fun off the diving board. Great stuff, but Jimmy couldn’t make it! Dummy was riding his motorcycle too quickly on slick ground and skidded out. Road rash. Fractured leg. He’ll be in the hospital during the party. Jimmy hates not being there. You hate that he’s not there.

Every so often throughout the party, Jimmy calls. Asks how everything is going. What's everyone doing? He sends texts to everyone asking the same. He just wants to be a small part of the celebration. Wants to hear some stories about the fun everyone’s having. Totally understandable. Everyone tells him stories. Fun goes on into the night. Everyone is glad you invited them over. Nice job.

Teachers who consider themselves progressively minded will toss around the phrase “formative assessment” in a context that it has revolutionized education and has eliminated the need for tests, or, as we call them in our jargon-speak “summative assessments.”

Quick primer: A "summative assessment" is a test. Teachers are beginning to hate tests more and more because we are seeing that we cannot realistically hate state-standardized tests and still say that the tests we give in class are useful. So some of us rely now on "formative assessment." A formative assessment is that quick check in on a student. Teacher asks questions in the middle of a project. You have the class fill out an exit ticket to check on how much they learned in a given period of time. You check in periodically with the student to see how they are doing and if they are learning what they are supposed to learn.

Because, of course, we have to actively assess.

The one that we love most is the book conference for children’s independent reading (as opposed to the stuff we force them to read, even though we still force them to read independently, but...okay.) Even “conference” is too formal for some of us and we simply call it “conversation.” Sounds great. Sounds organic. People read and then talk about books. What could be the problem?

Go back to the party scenario. Replay it in your mind. Except this time, all those calls and texts that were from Jimmy (the dummy), are instead from the police checking in and asking how everything is going.

Why does it feel so weird now? Why is everyone having less fun and being more cautious? You know why.

Teachers, your assigned authority does the same to your book conversations. You are still stressing the children. You are still putting them under pressure to give you the right answers. They know you are still assessing their words and actions. All you’ve actually done is remove the #2 pencils and the bubbles.

Until that system of authority is out of the picture, any changes of school and learning will be nothing more than cosmetic. Just like your book conferences.

SOLE Grannies are not authoritative adults. They are part of the fun, not directing it. The children are directing their own learning in SOLEs. And because of that, there is no fear or worry getting in the way of children learning.

(Many thanks to my sister Cheryl for inspiring this post with a goofy fun comic.)