'Harmony' between summative and formative assessment needed

12th June 2009 at 01:00

A leading guru of formative assessment has warned against throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Paul Black, of King's College London, believes it should work in tandem with summative assessment, not replace it. Internally-generated summative assessments were "essential" in helping teachers, parents and management take decisions about a pupil's future in areas such as subject choice, he told a Glasgow conference last week. Schools should be wary, however, of the potential for externally-organised summative assessment to "dominate" their own.

Summative assessment, Professor Black suggested, should become more sophisticated and in "harmony" with formative approaches. A test at the end of a course was too late, he told the conference run by the Tapestry Partnership. He has explored these ideas in more detail in a paper on the innovative Highland Future Learning and Teaching programme of formative assessment.

A "review of progress" could help find evidence of the understanding of every individual pupil "in a way that is hard to collect in either whole- class or group discussions", he said. It could also highlight successes and failures of a course of work, "so guiding the choice of the next steps in the learning programme".

Professor Black stressed in his report that "some activities which may be labelled as summative assessment could have a solely formative purpose". Far from making pupils sit on their own and cram their heads with facts, this unfashionable form of assessment could, if used in the right way, encourage deeper learning".

"Summative tests provide ways of eliciting evidence of student achievement and, used appropriately, can prompt feedback that moves learning forward. They can also communicate to learners what is and is not valued in a particular discipline, thus communicating criteria for success. Where this has been done, it opens up the possibility of students helping one another, and using the tests as a guide to planning their own reviews, during preparation and afterwards in involvement in the marking process."

Learning and Teaching Scotland chief executive Bernard McLeary, who chaired last week's conference, said Professor Black had shown the need for "synergy between formative and summative aspects", especially in secondary schools.

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