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Thinking beyond the summative assessment task

Countless hours have been spent as teaching teams sit staring at a screen trying to agree on a summative assessment task. The purpose of these summative assessment tasks is supposed to be to check for understanding, to see how the students’ understanding of the concepts explored during a unit of inquiry has developed.

Each one of those sessions may have gone absolutely nowhere, and signifies a misconception that exists in many schools today – that a one-size-fits-all summative assessment task will tell you about each individual student’s level of understanding.

There are seven flaws here:

  • The majority of these conversations are firmly within the realms of “what will we do?” and almost all remain in that realm without ever considering “why are we doing this?”.
  • Many teaching teams teach units of inquiry without ever really figuring out what it is they are hoping students will understand. As a result, their chances of being able to assess student understanding is negligible right from the start.
  • Many teaching teams have a limited understanding of what understanding actually is and so struggle to concentrate or remain motivated during strenuous planning sessions. Often you will hear complaints of being “brain dead at the end of the day” or “I can’t stand semantics” or “we’re just going round and round in circles”. The process of figuring out the enduring understandings of a unit of inquiry is often abandoned completely, done in a hurry to appease those who wish to leave or done by one or two teachers on the team with the intelligence or commitment to make it happen.
  • Very often, summative assessment tasks are designed that actually assess completely the wrong thing by mistake, and the understandings are left untouched  and hidden behind the task itself. Getting all of the students to do a written summative assessment task, for example, is actually an assessment of their writing – not their understanding. Getting all of the students to do a presentation is actually an assessment of their ability to make and deliver a presentation – not their understanding. Getting all of the students to make a video is actually assessing their ability to make a video – not their understanding.
  • Many summative assessment tasks become grand projects or productions that shift the emphasis completely away from the understanding and towards the task itself.
  • The most effective and powerful ways for the students to demonstrate their understanding may only become clear as the unit evolves. Indeed, if we watch our students closely and listen to their thinking, the most powerful and effective ways to assess may actually come from them.
  • Summative assessment tasks are simply too late. If you and the students find out they don’t understand something at the end of the unit (because it really is just about us finishing off the learning, right?) then it’s too late isn’t? If you’re using formative assessment and actually watching the students closely throughout the unit, you should know exactly how the students’ understanding is developing, or not. If you find out at the end… well…um… what have you been doing for six weeks?
  • Not all students are able to express their understanding in the same way.

So, next time you’re sitting around a table with a group of people who are trying to make a one-size-fits-all summative assessment task… perhaps suggest that you don’t bother. Instead, explore the following steps:

  • Ensure everyone responsible for teaching the unit has a good understanding themselves of the understandings you are all trying to develop in the students. You’d be amazed how often this is not the case.
  • Ensure you have created a tool, such as a good rubric, that can be used right from the start of the unit as a way to guide students towards the understandings you are hoping for.
  • Ensure that there is constant, ongoing formative assessment and reflection that continue to give a picture of how each student is developing as the unit progresses.
  • As the unit progresses, share the learning that is going with your teams so that your shared understandings of the unit are strengthened, moderated and challenged.
  • Look for opportunities to help your students transfer what they are learning to new contexts so you can see if they really are understanding the concepts involved.

Very often, the key to achieving all of these things lies in assessing the same way that you teach. If you are teaching in a problem-solving, open-ended style that leaves plenty of space for critical thinking and inquiry… then assessing their understanding will be easier. If however, you are teaching in chunks of discrete, prescriptive learning in which there is little or no space for inquiry, problem-solving  or critical thinking, assessing understanding becomes virtually impossible.


Learning Continuums


In PYP schools there are six units of inquiry over 6 ‘grade’ levels from PREP to Grade 5. That equals 36 units of inquiry. That’s 36 opportunities to analyse and synthesize the learning at the ‘conclusion’ of a unit of inquiry. Yes, I’m fully aware that formative assessment is happening all the time. But as far as the summative assessment goes, we do this only once at the ‘end’ of a unit. This is a way to gauge what a student’s understanding of the central idea is after 6 weeks of learning and inquiring.

How can we effectively capture all that learning and understanding? 

For years we’ve been creating rubrics. They take a long time to design and develop. This process does allow the people in the same room to not only deepen their understanding of the learning and make connections to the central ideas and lines of inquiry…….this approach also creates a common language and sets clear expectations on the possibilities and the potential that may come out of those learning experiences.

Is the investment (time, effort and energy) worth it when developing a rubric to assess students’ understanding and knowledge? Does this process add value?

In short, yes. Taking teachers through this process requires a lot of constructing and it is through that process we are able to share, defend, explain and talk about student learning. That in itself is pretty exciting stuff. While it does take time in reaching consensus… only then can we achieve clarity. It helps us see how to measure progress of learning and evidence it alongside of the rubric. Students still can choose the best way to demonstrate their learning, it is the rubric that anchors how student’s represent what they have come to know and do.

We’ve changed the branding of ‘rubric‘ to ‘learning continuum,‘ which has created a positive spin on developing robust, relevant and authentic learning expectations.

Our goal as a school is to develop 36 learning continnums, just like a POI. We can critique these, challenge them, build upon them, just like we do with all central ideas, not only as a POI review, but at the start of each unit. We are finding that we are getting better at writing these over time too. Yes, at times we hit walls and get stuck, but it is the fighting through it that we have the best conversations which leads to better ideas, resulting in better teaching.

Personally, I feel that most assessments fall short and teachers end up doing another reflection as their summative assessment. This is not good enough and it touches on Sam’s previous blog post of salmon swimming up stream…. teachers just run out of time; therefore, well put-together, thoughtful and meaningful assessment tools take a back seat! The unit simply fizzles out and doesn’t become much for student’s to engage with it and look for way they can transfer this into other areas of learning.

So why am I writing this? Well, there are a few reasons… the main one is that through the self-study process, I’ve come to realize that section C4 (Assessment) is an area that we need to challenge. We don’t have a clear approach or expectation on what that is or can look like. If we are to be true to the teaching and learning then we need to honor it with a rich and authentic learning continuum – it is all in the feedback we give to our students. Finish the unit well by taking it all the way! Do more than notice the learning, embrace it and set goals with your students, so that the next unit is a continuation from the previous one. How can our students improve from unit to unit, not just wait for the next ‘Sharing the planet’ unit in a year’s time.

What do you do to capture your students’ learning?

Let me know if you want to take a look at some of our Learning Continuums. We need to share these more with one another, so we can adapt them and design powerful assessments – together.


Alicia, a teacher at Mt. Scopus, has given the following feedback (see here) from one of our sessions together:

“The big idea I came out with was ‘why?’ If we, as teachers, don’t know why we do what we do in class or why we teach a certain unit or why we are heading one direction, then there is no value to our teaching and our children will FEEL it right away.”

It makes me very proud when someone has really grasped the crux of a message I try to get across… and then expresses it better than I could!

There are not many careers out there in which you could spend many hours doing something and yet be unable to explain thoughtfully how your actions are leading to something important.  It is quite mind-boggling to think about how many of us have delivered lessons, or entire units, without ever really taking the time to make sure we understand what it is about and why it is important.I have tried to think of all the reasons why we might do this:

  • we don’t have the time because only a limited amount is allocated to planning
  • we think we don’t have the time because we have so many other things to do
  • people in our teams resent the conversations and debates as a waste of time
  • we get bogged down in semantics (although this can be valuable too)
  • our units are sometimes about far too much and we are afraid to limit them
  • our units are sometimes about almost nothing!
  • we look at last year’s planner and figure it went OK
  • it is just too hard to reach any sort of consensus
  • we get distracted thinking of learning activities
  • we become obsessed with designing a summative task (more on this in another posting)

The Roman proverb in the image above sums all of this up for me. If we don’t have a clear, shared understanding of what a unit of inquiry is truly about, then we could basically do anything with our kids. But, if we do have a clear, shared understanding of what a unit of inquiry is truly about, then we can design learning experiences and contexts that take us and our students in that direction. This doesn’t mean all teachers teaching the same way. It doesn’t mean all learners learning the same way. It does mean that we have focus, something to return to and something to guide us all. It does mean that we are able to make better connections with other areas of the curriculum. It also means that our units will have real value.

So, get in the habit of asking “why”… why I am asking my students to do this? Why would this be a good idea? Why would this activity be effective? Why would this assessment have value?