Category Archives: grading

Taste the soup, evaluate the soup, but please, don’t burn it.

(originally posted on Medium)


This Edutopia Tweet got me thinking about how formative/summative assessment process are defined and perceived.

I’ve heard several metaphors for formative/summative assessment processes, and they are all pretty good: “Formative = check up/Summative=autopsy.” The Edutopia comparison in the graphic above works pretty well too: “Formative=tasting the soup/Summative=eating the soup.” Those metaphors can be useful, but it’s also a bit tricky because neither of them go far enough: the process doesn’t “become” formative until someone USES the information to make a change (e.g. you use information from a check up with your Dr. to change your eating habits, or you add salt to the soup after you taste it). Similarly, the process doesn’t “become” summative until someone forms an evaluative conclusion based on the information (e.g. you figure out that a heart attack killed the patient, or you say that the soup is good but too salty for your taste).

But the soup metaphor can get extended in a different direction too: the way most teachers have to assign grades is to provide an overall, global “mark” (letter, number, etc.) to students over a period of time (quarter, semester, year). That’s a summative process, but a darn tricky one. Eating and evaluating the soup is a summative process, but most of us would probably say “the soup is good — the veggies might be a little big and chunky? And it could use less salt.” That’s a potentially useful, detailed evaluation. But teachers can’t do that. They usually have to give ONE overall mark to student work, which is like boiling down all the complexity and richness of the soup to a thin uniform paste on the bottom of the pan, then evaluating that. Yech.

How complicated CAN we make grades?

Had a long conversation with a curriculum specialist today about grading. I


get a bit nervous now when someone asks me about grading in middle schools or high schools. Our department hasn’t been involved in grading conversations for a while in secondary school because, I think, our contributions annoyed people after a while.

The curriculum specialist asked me about some questions he heard from teachers about some of the grading categories available to them in their online gradebook. They have “summative” and “formative” categories they can use, and the summative categories account for 80% of the grade, and the formative 20%. This curriculum specialist’s teachers weren’t sure how to use the formative 20% category, and the curriculum specialist asked me for advice.

What in the world can I say that’s useful about this? The phrase “graded formative category” gets thrown around – what the heck? How much time should we spend talking about “fixes” that will help teachers put anything useful into a category called “formative” that ends up weighing in to 20% of a cumulative grade? I don’t know where to start.

Poor formative assessment. I feel bad for the term, and I wonder how we strayed so far. Originally, all it was supposed to mean was something close to “practice” – an opportunity for students and teachers to USE some assessment information to change something about their teaching or student learning. Teachers figure out what to work on next (or what other experiences or practice students need), and/or students figure out what they should study more or differently, or use feedback to improve.

How does that fairly simple idea of formative assessment combine with the idea of a category that “counts” for 20% of your grade? How should teachers decipher a requirement that they record “scores” for some assessments, put them in the 20% formative category, and then explain what that all means in terms of learning and the final cumulative grade?

I don’t even know where to start.