Mark Reford is the CEO of BASIS Independent Schools. He was formerly a Dean and English teacher at Sidwell Friends School in Washington D.C.

There are a myriad of opinions and schools of thought on assessing student learning. It's one of the topics that comes up most often when we meet with families and community members to share more about our STEM-focused, liberal arts program. Here's our take. 

Whenever a parent meets their child’s teacher, whether during the formality of a parent-teacher conference, or by chance at a random encounter at a local park, the first question is always, “How is my child doing?” This is entirely as it should be. Parents care.

And so do BASIS Independent master/mistress teachers. They, too, ask this question day-by-day, sometimes minute-by-minute, about each of the children in their classes. 

What constitutes a sufficient response?   “Fine.” “Great.” “Struggling...”

More importantly, what is driving the answer? Instinct? Feeling? No one should discount the importance of an experienced teacher’s gut, but a strong learning environment cannot run only on the subjective perceptions of even the most focused Jedi teacher. 

When you truly want to know how your child is doing in school, you’re asking for assessment data. Over time, data generated from frequent assessment helps us identify our strengths and target the places that can be made stronger

It is important to understand that there are two types of assessment: formative and summative. When you hear criticism about “too much testing in education,” this tends to be a critique of summative assessment. These assessments typically measure longer-term retention and take the form of tests, quizzes, and higher stakes semester and end-of-year exams.  BASIS sets high expectations and requires these types of measurements to convey meaningful and accurate information about what students have mastered to various interested parties (including learning expert teachers, subject expert teachers, school directors, heads of school, among others).  Understanding the level at which a student, a class, a grade, and ultimately a school is capable of performing allows for informed decision-making about next steps: What skill should we revisit? What expert do I need to hire? What tools may improve our results?   

Summative Assessment
Summative Assessment is an essential mechanism to evaluate whether a lesson’s educational goals are fulfilled and our expectations of our teachers are met. The more we ask students to demonstrate their depth of understanding, on real content, the stronger and more vibrant the intellectual culture of the classroom becomes.    

The BASIS educational model starts with what is known as a “bare bones” syllabus in each subject, which is common to all of the schools within the BASIS network. In grades 6 - 8 these subjects are tested with a common comprehensive exam prior to the end of the school year. A preliminary version of these comprehensive exams is offered to students following the conclusion of approximately the first half of the year. These pre-comprehensive exams are often the first time our students are exposed to cumulative testing. The pre-comp exams allow teachers to restructure classes and spend time focusing on areas that require more work and less time on those topics and skills which students have already grasped. 

Formative Assessment
Though not often labeled as a “test,” formative assessment can be just as powerful as summative assessment, if not more. Formative assessment involves shorter, faster and more frequent checks for understanding during and within the process of learning. Teachers who are just going through the motions skip formative assessment and just wait for the summative results – but BASIS teachers build their entire delivery and practice on interwoven formative assessments across lessons, units and years. We might even say that when students internalize the process of formative assessment, and take corrective action based on their own momentary evaluation of their learning, they have truly become accountable for their own intellectual development. Such formative assessment makes us masters of our own education - and authentic, independent learners.  

While these are not mutually exclusive, we see that teachers who use formative assessment are often considered more engaging - and they know exactly when their students are connecting with new ideas, and when they are not. They can adapt presentations and differentiate pedagogic practice based on these transitory and evolving conditions. A good classroom is truly a fast-moving stream of learning and assessment, with a teacher assessing and adjusting minute-by-minute, day-by-day, asking questions constantly and listening closely.

BASIS Independent Silicon Valley is a San Jose private school providing students a nationally ranked STEM-focused Liberal Arts program for grades 5 through 12. We are now accepting applications for Fall 2015.