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Severn Education Series

Learner-First Assessment

Severn Education Series written by Dan Keller, Head of Middle School
There is an interesting dichotomy in modern schooling: do we assess to evaluate student learning at the end of instruction (summative)? Or do we assess to inform students and teachers throughout the process of teaching and learning (formative)? Both sides of the educational divide have strong reasons why one form of evaluation should be employed more than the other. But how can we best serve middle school students?

Formative vs. Summative

In our Middle School, we deeply value the learning process. Students frequently engage in projects and formative activities that ask them to perform, think critically, and apply the knowledge gained in classes. From a 6th grade interdisciplinary unit on Afghanistan, to a 7th-grade cross-curricular project on the health of Chesapeake Bay, to an eighth-grade Holocaust unit involving both History and English — our students engage in a healthy balance of doing as well as knowing. To complement these rich learning experiences, we employ traditional tests and ask students to think through their process. Teachers use the assessment data to enhance their teaching — this is our formative process.

Yet historically our final exams — the most demanding and lengthy tests we administer to our students — were strictly summative, always given at the end of the school year. Our final exams, as they were, did not assess what we value most in our Middle School, the process. However, middle school teaching is also about upper school preparation. Our students need to groom and practice for a college-prep program, including high-stakes final exams, Advanced Placement exams, and the Standard Aptitude Test. As the educational bridge from lower to upper school, middle school education should be a balance of process and preparation by way of student testing.

What is the purpose of a final exam?

This year, our Middle School assembled an assessment task force to take a deep dive into data gathered from faculty discussions and survey results. The task force included a representative from each academic department and their respective testing philosophies. From the data collected, the task force cultivated three questions:
  • What is the purpose of giving a final exam?
  • Why do we give an exam at the end of the year?
  • How can we use assessment/exams to enhance our own teaching as well as enhance students’ learning?
It became clear that our final exams lacked clear purpose and did not align with our values in middle school education. In response, the task force composed a purpose statement, informed by research-based professional reading on assessment:
The purpose of a culminating exam in Severn’s middle school is to support and measure learning. We value practicing study skills, preparing for, and taking a comprehensive assessment. We believe an exam given before the end of the school year will provide an opportunity to guide learners by yielding timely feedback and instruction.
With this statement as our guide, we moved final exam week ahead one month thereby using our summative exams in a formative way. Our teachers now use this exam data to create constructive follow-up lessons tailored to our students. In addition, these reflection activities align with the pedagogical approach we employ throughout the school year.

This post-exam time affords our students time to self-evaluate and take ownership of their test results. Students have the time to consider, “How do I plan to learn the knowledge and skills from the exams, as a result of my test score?” When the exam is not positioned as the final chance to prove understanding, students have the intrinsic motivation to learn from their mistakes on a final exam with teaching and reflecting afterward.

Learning Comes First

By administering exams earlier in the year, our teachers have time and robust test results to inform appropriate levels of support. For example, is it clear that a lesson should be reviewed? Does a student need individual mediation or learning support? Finally, this revised exam framework also speaks to the emotional and caring side of instruction. Our students observe their teachers’ actions and feel valued. They see the attention our teachers give to exam outcomes and their thoughtful plans to address learning gaps. Through tireless efforts our teachers effectively say, “we care about your learning first,” without speaking a word.


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