Using Homework As Formative Assessment

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anthonypbruceby Grant Wiggins, Ed.D, Authentic Education

I received a nice query by email the other day and I thought readers might find my reply helpful.

Within my district there is quite a debate going on about the difference between formative and summative assessments.  Specifically, the administration in my school district has developed a common syllabus for our teachers this year which states that 30% of a student’s grade should be made up of formative assessments (homework, journals, etc.) and the remaining 70% should be made up of summative assessments (quizzes, tests, exams).  I am on the side that is arguing that a formative assessment should never be graded – it is supposed to be used as a tool to evaluate teaching so that adjustments can be made to instruction.

I write you in hopes of getting a clear and concise definition of a formative assessment.  Can they be graded?  If so, how are graded and ungraded formative assessments different from one another?

I’ll need to qualify my answers by distinguishing between ‘theory’ and ‘practice’ and in terms of the meanings of the key terms.

In theory, I would define ‘formative’ assessment as “useful feedback with an opportunity to use that feedback” to perform optimally on later summative assessments. A simple example: a pre-season of 4 games in soccer (as well as ongoing “scrimmages”) in which the games don’t ‘count’ is formative assessment to get teams ready for the games that do count in the regular season. So, your comment about “use the information to evaluate teaching” introduces a slightly different purpose for me. Formative assessments provide feedback – for students first, then teachers; that’s their purpose.

A 2nd simple example, more complicated: Suppose as an English teacher I do a pre-test writing on day 1 of my course, the same test is given twice during the year, and a post-test is given on the last day of the course – and it is the SAME prompt each time (say, a writing prompt on the course Essential Question “How well do we know ourselves?”). I will most likely NOT grade the pre-test, but I might grade it while not ‘counting’ the grade, i.e. tell students where they stand (e.g. what teachers do when they use a practice AP test or use the state rubric). But I also might grade and thus ‘count’ the ‘formative’ writing prompts DURING the year as well as the post-test at year’s end IF I felt that students should be ‘ready’ to be tested on their understanding and writing ability thus far.

Another not so simple example: I give you feedback on your college essay before you submit the final ‘real’ essay to your college. I might “grade” your college essay draft with a B- as well as giving you feedback and advice on how to improve it for the final “summative” version you hand in to the colleges of your choice since we have been working on essays all year. And I might even put that B- in my gradebook as one grade of many for you in English 12 this year. (But, then, I might also raise your grade once I see the ‘final’ version you sent to the colleges and count only the final’ grade on that personal essay in my gradebook.

In short, no matter the pure definition, I don’t think it is accurate to say that formative assessments can’t ever be graded. What matters – what makes a formative assessment formative – is whether I have a chance to get and use feedback in a later version of the ‘same’ performance. It’s only formative if it is ongoing; it’s only summative if it is the final chance, the ‘summing up’ of student performance.

What’s really more irksome for me in these kinds of matters is when people utterly abuse the idea of formative by describing any non-end-of-course assessment as formative. It is completely bogus to declare that ‘homework’ and quizzes are ‘formative’ simply because they are different from quizzes and because they occur throughout the year. If the specific demand only occurs once and you can’t use the feedback from them to do better next time, i.e. if the homework and journals are unique one-time events, then that individual homework assignment is summative. Just because it is not at the end of the year or semester doesn’t make it formative. It’s onlyformative if it recurs as a task in which I can learn from feedback to improve at the ‘same’ task.

Now, a critic may say – c’mon, Grant: they learn from doing homework how to do homework – so it’s formative and not 1-shot. And we grade it because we want them to be accountable for homework. Fair enough, I suppose (if that is really true). Calling homework assignments formative seems like a stretch to me. The content is unique and we grade the content not just the doing of it in most cases. If the grade is just for turning it in then I might acquiesce. On the other hand, calling a journal ‘formative’ and grading it for development over time seems reasonable.

However, we can say for sure that any truly one-shot assessment – homework, journal, quiz, paper -  is summative, no matter when it occurs.

Call me a cynic, but my hunch here is that the makers of this rule are doing it unthinkingly in terms of the pure ideas. They seem to be just throwing trendy language around (at least from what you sent me; that’s all I can refer to). It sounds like they care less about the true meaning of ‘formative’ assessment than they care about making sure that kids do their work and are held accountable for it. FINE! But don’t call homework and journals ‘formative’ then.

Suppose I am wrong; suppose that the point of the plan is to make sure kids do their work AND to provide more truly formative assessment opportunities for kids, AND to expand the different types of assessments to give kids more options for showing what they know and can do. Fine!  But then the policy would probably be different than the one proposed, I think.

A policy sensitive to these issues and designed to give kids more opportunities to get good feedback and use it would make that more clear in the policy statement. It would make clear when you should and when you should not include a grade in a kid’s average, what kinds of ‘fair chances’ to learn they need, and that journals and homework are only ‘formative’ if kids can improve at those tasks over time and have the later grades count more than the earlier grades (or some other reasonable rule).

What is really wanted here is a full discussion of the assumption that lurks below consciousness: the longstanding thoughtlessness of averaging grades to compute interim and final grades. This is just a dumb habit that penalizes growth and over-rewards wild swings of performance – though steady growth is what we presumably value in learners.

Another day I’ll tackle that beast!

This article first appeared on Grant’s personal blogfollow Grant on twitter; image attribution flickr user anthonypbruce; Using Homework As Formative Assessment