Academic journal article The Science Teacher

An Assessment Primer

Academic journal article The Science Teacher

An Assessment Primer

Article excerpt

Although the title of this month's column may make your skin crawl--read on. Everyone should understand a few basics about the "A" word. Being able to distinguish formative from summative assessment and criterion-based from norm-referenced testing helps not only teachers, but also parents, the larger community, and students.

Often the first idea that comes to mind when considering assessment is a test: an exam that collects information about whether students understand knowledge or skills the teacher expects them to have learned. This traditional idea represents summative assessment, which comes at the end or "summation" of an instructional unit.

Formative assessment, on the other hand, is diagnostic--like a medical test. The purpose of this information is to understand what a student knows or can do now in order to figure out what should come next. Although both formative and summative assessments are checking for understanding, the results of formative assessments are used by teachers and students to adjust what they are going to do and to improve learning; the results of summative assessments are primarily used to assign a grade.

As pointed out by Popham (2008), the related term formative evaluation was coined in the late 1960s to evaluate an educational program "while the program is still malleable--capable of being improved because of an evaluation's results ... In contrast, when a mature, final-version educational program is evaluated in order to make a decision about its continuation or termination, this constitutes summative evaluation" (p. 3). Educators quickly expanded the use of these terms from evaluation to assessment and applied them to student knowledge as well.

Using a certain assessment instrument does not determine whether a teacher is assessing formatively or summatively. Rather, a teacher is assessing formatively when he or she uses assessment data as part of a planned process to adjust the teaching of the current unit. When a teacher uses data to determine what a student learned and to assign a grade, he or she is assessing summatively.

The distinction between norm-referenced and criterion-based tests is equally important. In a criterion-based test, each student's performance is compared to preestablished criteria. If a student's score is above some minimum, then he or she passes the test or is otherwise considered competent (e.g., a driver's-license exam). …

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