Assessment Literacy - What is it and why does it matter?

Part 1 of this series looks at formative and summative testing

For many teachers (ESOL and otherwise), assessment is the elephant in the room. Testing, evaluation and feedback are the core of what many of us do, but the mechanics of assessment often seem to be the domain of academics and researchers, not the humble teacher who works with learners to attain their goals. Far from shrinking from a better understanding of assessment, we should embrace it and work with it; getting to grips with some key features of assessment design actually helps us to get inside the testing process and give our test-takers the edge over the exam they are taking. This piece aims to define some important concepts in assessment design and show why these are important factors in our job as language educators.

Formative and summative assessment
A common distinction in types of assessment is between the evaluation of skills development over time versus the test of what has been learnt at the end of a course of study. The former, designed to be part of the learning process, is known as formative assessment - the results of this kind of test can be used as a learning tool to help students progress towards their final assessment, which gives them a grade, mark or score which they can use as proof of their progress at the time of testing. This final assessment is known as summative - it sums up the test-taker’s knowledge, skills or proficiency in a ‘snapshot’ of where they stand at a specific point.

A main contrast between formative and summative assessment is the amount of feedback that a test-taker is given following the test. After a formative test (as it is designed to help the learners along their path to improvement), significant feedback should be given. Feedback activity can include a review of the correct answers, with learners thinking about why they got the scores that they did in different sections, and upgrading their language and exam skills as they go through the test with the teacher. By contrast, summative assessment is not followed by feedback other than the results that each learner achieved. Without further information about the test, all a learner can think after a summative test is ‘oh, I did really well’, or ‘oh, I did really badly’. This is in no way a learning experience in terms of language or skills.

Feedback as an assessment tool
In my time as a teacher developer, I have seen tests which should be constructive, formative experiences for learners, held midway through a term or course, used as summative exercises, with students being ranked or scored against each other before going back to the routine of teaching and learning in their regular classes without any constructive feedback about the process that they undertook to choose the answers they did, or to write the assessed pieces they had been judged on. This is not a constructive way of giving assessment, and it should be ensured that feedback is handled sensitively and constructively for all students to prevent them getting demotivated or even humiliated. Even for stronger test performers, the value of a test is much reduced unless they understand why they got the high score that they did.

The essential contrast between formative and summative tests is important to consider when giving any assessment. While you are preparing the test, practice exam or quiz, think: is this a learning exercise to help students improve in some area of their language or exam skills, or a dry run for the real test, where results are everything? If the answer is the former, you will need to plan feedback and reflection time after the results are in, otherwise you may be doing the test-takers a disservice and missing an opportunity for some very focused learning.

Tom Garside is an international education developer and founder and Director of Teacher Training at Language Point. He has published TESOL: A Gateway Guide, a methodology e-guide for teachers of ESOL, a Pronunciation activity book centred on pronunciation card games, and will be speaking on ways of ensuring sustained development for English Language Teachers at the Future of ELT conference at Regents University, London on June 15th.

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