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Formative vs. Summative Testing

Formative vs. Summative Testing

When your child comes home with information about their upcoming state test at the end of the year, do you ever wonder what exactly this test will tell you about your child? Do you worry about the stress your child feels about it, and the week or two of learning that will be lost due to the testing?

If so, you are not alone! As prospective parents tour Arches Academy, this question about annual testing comes up often. We hope this information about our testing approach will provide some helpful insight.

There are basically two kinds of standardized tests: Formative and Summative. In short, formative tests are used to help determine a student’s current academic level and then make a plan for further progress, while summative tests are used to determine how much information a student has retained in the year, and how well a school has performed in teaching students. While they may sound similar, let us explain the crucial differences.

Formative Tests:

The goal of a formative test is to monitor the student’s learning in order to provide ongoing, current feedback. This information can be used by teachers to further improve their teaching and place students in classes that are level-appropriate. This is because formative tests show what students know across all levels of a subject, rather than just how well they know a certain grade level content. For example, a 4th grader’s results could show that she has mastered not only the 4th grade content, but also has mastered the 5th grade content and some of 6th. So why spend time teaching that student what she already knows? The teacher can focus on helping her learn the 6th grade content she doesn’t know yet, and then continue on with as much as possible in the year.

Summative Tests:

The goal of a summative test is quite different: to evaluate a student’s mastery of a specific set of concepts and skills at the end of the school year by comparing their scores to a standard set by the state. This means that students will be asked questions on the content they should have learned that current school year for their grade level. The score that the student receives is measured against a set standard or benchmark, which is supposed to indicate how well the student learned the material from that school year, and how well the school and teachers performed with teaching those concepts and skills. This can often result in schools and teachers limiting their teaching to only what will be on the annual test, drilling and drilling that content to make sure that scores show a mastery of the concepts.

Summative tests do not show what material the students know from any other grade level, above or below their current grade. Although these test results will show whether or not they learned the material for their current grade, they fail to give the teacher an accurate assessment of the student’s level across the board. For example, if a 3rd grade student takes a summative standardized test, the results may show a 95% mastery of the 3rd grade material and the teacher, parents, and student will feel great with this success. However, there is no information about what else this student knows of other grade content, or if an opportunity was missed to learn even more than the given content. Was this student ever challenged? As long as a student scores well, it can seem that they are doing fine, and might not receive any challenges. Why does this matter? Because then a student might be being held back from their potential to learn more; to go above and beyond. This missing information is important for teachers to have so that they can place their students in the right level class where they will be challenged, but not be behind or frustrated, and to further personalize learning activities within that class.

As you can see, summative standardized tests do not give a complete, informative picture of a student’s full progress in a year. They show a student's score on the grade level concepts of that specific year, and that limited information is just not very helpful or usable. Every student has the potential to progress above and beyond their grade level curriculum, and they should not be restricted in demonstrating their knowledge within only their current grade level.

So, why do public schools use a summative standardized tests?

It provides a way to rate a teacher’s competency teaching to the state curriculum and it helps score a school for comparison to other schools. Public schools only offer a limited ability for students to move up in subjects so the additional information obtained in formative tests is typically not wanted. In short, summative tests are less about the child and more about the system.

Why is Arches Academy different?

At Arches Academy, we know that having our assessments paint a fuller picture is crucial to a student’s learning experience, hence our decision to use formative testing. We have chosen the Global Scholar Performance Testing as our testing platform. Students take the test twice within the year: at the beginning of the year and then again at the end. This gives us pertinent information to use right away to place the student correctly in classes, and personalize their learning. The end of year testing results give us information on how much progress each student made within the year.

The testing takes 2-3 mornings rather than a week or two, so learning is disrupted as little as possible. As each student completes their test, they go back to class, rather than sitting quietly and waiting for the rest of the class to finish or for the testing period to be done. The test is taken on a computer, and “forms” as the student progresses through the test: each question is based on how the student answered the previous one. As the student continues to answer each question correctly, the program will continue to give them higher level questions -- it is not limited to their current grade level concepts. As the material becomes too advanced for that student, the program will adjust the questions accordingly.

The results show us what content and skills each student knows already within each subject they are tested on, as opposed to giving a score on how well a student knows only their current grade material. When a teacher understands what students already know and what they are ready to learn next they can plan accordingly, adjusting their lessons and activities so no one is bored and no one is frustrated, but challenged daily in just the right ways and areas.

One way we are able to personalize given our test results is offering leveled classes. Language Arts classes and Math classes are held at the same time so that students can travel to the class that fits their level the best. For example, while a student’s birthdate might place them in the 1st grade, their reading may be on a 2nd or 3rd grade level, so they are able to go to that class and read in a reading group that fits them best. Their math may be at a Kindergarten level, so they can travel to that class for lessons and activities that fit them best for that subject. Being able to learn in a class that is “just right” helps each student to feel safe, comfortable, and confident in their ability to engage new challenges.

Our goal at Arches Academy is to help each one of our students learn and progress to the highest level possible. We have found that summative standardized tests do not help us achieve this goal, while formative tests make this goal much more achievable and realistic because our Global Scholar formative testing provides more valuable information. Our teachers are better able to see what their students’ needs are, and then personalize student learning in order to give each individual the ‘just right’ class placement and learning activities.

If this kind of approach to assessment and learning feels right to you, come in and take a tour! We give tours daily and we’d love for you to see Arches Academy students in action!

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