This entire post is because of a sentence from some student’s work that I overheard a teacher sharing. He said something like, "I was so proud of the A I got on my assignment." Of course I was pretty surprised because as far as I understood our assessment policy, we don’t give A’s in our school. It turns out that this was just a sentence in an English assignment the student had to do.

We are an IB school from kindergarten to grade 12 so we use a completely different system of assessment than the traditional public school. Instead of assigning students a letter grade for their courses, our summative assessment mark is on a scale from 1 to 7, with a 1 representing student who has produced very poor work up to a 7 representing excellent work. Essentially a 1 is considered a fail and a 2 is a minimal pass.

This isn’t the whole picture though. More important than the numbers we assigned to students is the process we go through to determine that number. We use a system where most of the work students produce is formative work which may or not include numbers on itself, but should always include feedback for the students. Once in a while, probably once each major unit, we will assign a piece of summative work for the students to complete. Often with the students help or alone, we produce a number for these assignments which we share with the students along with some feedback about their assessment.

We also provide a lot of formative feedback on a daily basis through assignments which would traditionally be averaged into a mark for the student. So we give quizzes, quick chats about progress, exercises during class, and a whole host of other assessment, but this assessment is treated as formative.

When we provide feedback to the parents and on transcripts for students, we provide what we call a snapshot of the student’s summative grade rather than an average of their grades. We also provide a similar snapshot of the students formative development in the form of comments. Our objective is to answer the question, "where is this student at in terms of their skills?" rather than "what has this student done?"

My head of school likens the distinction between formative and summative assessment to what happens with athletes. They practice a lot (formative assessment) and some athletes are more easily coached and practice more than others (formative assessment). Once the athlete hits the big game (summative assessment) they need to be able to perform.

In a lot of ways this process more closely matches what actually happens in real life once students graduate. Most of what we do is practice for the occasions where it really matters whether or not we are successful. Our objective is not to punish students during a semester with lots of repetitive assessments which do a poor job of measuring their understanding, but instead help them learn by giving them constructive feedback.

For example today I had to provide templates for our commenting system in advance of our parent-teacher interviews (formative assessment) which actually took me three tries to get right. Each time I sent out the templates to our staff, either I realized a mistake in the template, or someone commented back to me that they had spotted an error. Making a mistake in this sense is less important though since I have the opportunity to correct it before it is critical. However I am also in charge of maintaining the system we are going to use this year for our parent-teacher interview bookings. We are taking a bit of a risk and relying on a 3rd party system so that parents can book their appointments online and our administrative staff can do a lot less work. We’ve tested the system, but it has to work when the parents use it (summative assessment).

There are aspects of this system I really like and things about it which I dislike. I’d like to get rid of the numbers and only provide comments. I hate it when parents and students (and other schools) focus on the numbers associated with their grades and forget the story that produced that number. I really think this system is much better than what I used when I started my career, and I want to go back in time and confront myself 8 years ago and give myself a good slap for how foolish my assessment systems were.