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Highly Effective Assessment from a Distance, Part 2: Summative Assessment

“When the cook tastes the soup, that’s formative assessment. When the customer tastes the soup, that’s summative assessment.” - Paul Black



The primary goal of summative assessment is to evaluate student learning after completing the study of a topic by comparing it against some standard or benchmark. The teacher can determine their level of achievement and provide them with feedback on their strengths and weaknesses. For students who didn’t master the topic or skill, teachers can use data from the assessment to create a plan for remediation.


We need to acknowledge at the outset that there is no foolproof way to ensure academic honesty on summative assessments in a distance learning environment. Pretending otherwise disproportionately hurts our more honest students. This is one of the most important reasons that we need to focus less on grades. It’s also why we need to design summative assessments that discourage cheating. At the same time, we need to explicitly educate students about academic honesty, and proactively reinforce the lesson on an on-going basis. Enhance your repertoire of examples of academics and scientists who have either benefited from honesty or been harmed for a lack of it, and highlight those stories often in your classroom. To be crystal clear, enforcing academic punishments for academic integrity violations will be rarely necessary if you have made it a priority in your teaching and taught it well. Teacher expectations matter.


We need to assess students so that we can be more effective teachers. Yes, that means we need to trust students to do the right thing to some extent so that we can perform necessary summative assessments. Then, we need to engage them in teachable moments with frank conversations when concerns regarding academic honesty arise. Finally, if irrefutable evidence is available that a violation of our academic honesty policy have occurred, we need to enforce the consequences that were clearly communicated at the outset of the course.


Traditional 45 - 60 minute exams with a large component of multiple-choice items offer a lot of temptation and opportunity for academic dishonesty in an online environment. A summative assessment based upon a multi-part Free - Response Question (FRQ) modeled on either the AP or IB format and a 25-minute completion time offers far less opportunity for unauthorized student collaboration. If you utilize 4 unique Free-Response Questions on a summative assessment that assess the learning objectives of the unit (they don’t have to be exactly the same learning objectives), and students in the class are randomly assigned one of the 4 questions, the time that it takes for students to organize an unauthorized collaboration process and the trust issues between students should minimize academic dishonesty. That’s reasonable and demonstrates professional due diligence.. Beyond that we just have to accept what we can control and focus on the highest duties of our profession.


The key takeaway is that if we craft assessments that make students show us what they know in their own words instead of choosing a correct answer from a list we have offered them we have made a significant stride toward ensuring academic integrity. It might be the best we can do to this end. It is, however, vital to set clear expectations regarding how much time students are expected to devote to Free-Response Questions and to teach students beforehand how to approach and craft effective responses to them.


It’s still OK to utilize a limited number of well-crafted multiple-choice items on summative assessments. Students may encounter multiple-choice questions on a standardized exam in the Spring, or on the ACT or SAT. Therefore, we have a responsibility to provide them practice on this type of assessment question. However, multiple-choice have historically been overutilized in most classrooms because they are easy to grade. In a distance learning environment, we should minimize their impact on students’ grades, thereby reducing the incentive to cheat, and limit their use to short, timed assessments that mix up both the order of questions and the order of the answer choices.


Avoid using True/False questions or questions that include absolute words with no room for exceptions such as ALWAYS, NEVER, ALL or NONE. This has little to do with distance learning. These questions can be misleading, especially for imaginative and creative students or students with language-based disabilities.


At the conclusion of every summative assessment, consider requiring students to sign and date the following statement to receive credit: “On my honor, as a student, I have neither given nor received unauthorized aid on this academic work.” In our classroom experience, students often rise to meet clearly communicated expectations.


Even summative assessments should be formative. Reflection is an essential component of the learning cycle. Provide an opportunity following summative assessments to thoroughly reflect upon learning gaps and to perform remediation in class. This is a wise investment of instructional time. The traditional approach of moving forward to new topics and expecting the few students with large learning gaps to invest time outside of the regularly-scheduled class period is worthwhile and effective for a small percentage of students, but it has not been demonstrated to be effective at scale. This common practice only persists because of old paradigms and because it is convenient for adults.


Students should be prompted to write something as evidence of learning that took place after a summative assessment. In the event that they performed exceptionally well on the assessment, this is, at a minimum, evidence of retention. All students, even those who did well on their first attempt, encode longer-lasting memories when authentically reflecting upon exams.


Sometimes, in spite of our best efforts, the data from a summative assessment demand that the assessment should be reclassified as formative and we need to reteach the topic using new strategies before attempting another summative assessment.

Case Studies, Performance Tasks, Project-Based Learning, and Problem-Based Learning engage students in real-world and personally meaningful scenarios or projects and they should form the foundation of our distance teaching and our assessment plan. The very nature of these types of learning activities often prompt the type of collaboration that students will need to be successful in their college and careers, and requires unique and original responses from students and do not provide many opportunities for academic dishonesty. Couple them with clear and specific rubrics and they can be utilized as authentic summative assessments. By doing these activities, students gain knowledge and skills while investigating and responding authentic, engaging, and complex questions, problems, or challenges. What more could we ask from our time in a classroom?


Ultimately, no matter how hard we try, we won’t be perfect. Teachers will need to use their best professional judgement when assessing students, and be willing to quickly forgive themselves when they make mistakes, genuinely apologize for them, and work earnestly to resolve any issues that arise. We all need to compassionately understand that this the 2020 school year is uncharted territory. And if a teacher is concerned about a student’s academic honesty on a summative assessment, they have to look at the evidence and discuss the evidence with that student to make an informed judgement. We need to give the benefit of the doubt to not only students but also our teachers.


The serendipitous benefit is that distance teaching is going to have an everlasting positive effect on teaching and assessments. The challenges we will face during the 2020 school year will certainly spark robust educationally-focused dialogue and refocus our energies on the highest ideals of education.



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