In my last post I commented briefly on why I thought task-specific mark schemes were more appropriate than ladder-like progression models for the assessment of pupil work. In this post I want to turn my attention to formative feedback. In particular, I want to develop the points I made in this post about letting our subject specialism drive our teaching practice.
All formative feedback requires a summative stage: we have to judge what is good and bad about a piece of work before we can advise a pupil on how to improve it. I am quite a fan of formative feedback and respect the considerable body of evidence that points towards its strengths. I think, however, that the process is often proceeds from a weak starting point in schools, and this is the summative judgement that we make before giving the formative feedback.
My hunch here is that the usual summative judgement we make before giving formative feedback is based on a set of assessment criteria. These could be National Curriculum levels, public examination mark schemes or some other assessment tool that we use regularly in schools. The emphasis seems natural: we want pupils to perform well in tests, they want to do well in tests, and therefore it makes sense to give feedback based on ‘how to get from a D to a C’ or ‘from a Level 5 to a Level 6’. One has only to glance at classroom displays, homework diaries and pupil notebooks to see that this approach to formative feedback is deeply embedded in our teaching culture.
I am not convinced, however, that this is right. If you have not yet read Daisy Christodoulou’s piece on teaching to the test, then now is the time to do it. In the post she draws on Koretz to argue that teaching to the requirements of an assessment, all of which are necessarily imperfect, distracts us from teaching the domain – the thing that we want to teach – whether it be mathematics, history or knitting. The test becomes the curriculum which becomes the domain in the eyes of pupils and teachers.
So how might we avoid this? I think the key is that we need to make a clear distinction between the purposes of formative and summative assessment. In summative assessment – such as exams, end of unit tests and so on – we are judging pupils against a (necessarily imperfect) mark scheme. When giving formative feedback, however, we should be judging pupils against the domain – i.e. what is good history, or good chemistry. At times this might overlap with a mark scheme, but often it will not. In short, we should be giving pupils feedback that will help them get better at the subject, and not at the test.
- Summative assessment – judge pupils against a mark scheme.
- Formative assessment – judge pupils against the domain.
This is a simple distinction, and yet one which our well-meaning emphasis on assessment for learning in recent years had led us to overlook.