Something I hear fairly often this year is kids saying things like: “hey, how’d you do on the formative in math?” Or, “Wait, the summative in Chem is today?” or other such things throwing around educational jargon. Now, I’m not a huge fan of most jargon to begin with, but there is something about students using it that makes me feel uneasy.
You might say that it is a good thing that kids use these terms because it suggests that students understand the purpose of their assignments. Perhaps if we tell kids that there is a summative assessment coming up, they will know to take it seriously and understand that this assessment concludes the unit. Yes, students should understand why we are giving assessments, and we have a responsibility to our students to explain our rationale in most scenarios (I do believe there are some scenarios where this is not the case). But I do not use jargon with my students to explain this. I often say to my students something like “tomorrow’s quiz (a term they are all familiar with) will help me to see where you are in this unit” That express the purpose clearly without clouding the issue.
You see, my problem with the jargon is that it does not clarify much for our students and, quite frankly we are not all using the terms correctly. The fact that we attempt to classify all types of assignments as either formative or summative in our grade book is really quite silly. We say that quizzes are formative so instead of saying quiz we tell our students it’s “a formative.” Except, in talking with teachers in all different departments, that quiz is not used formatively. No assessment is formative or summative in its nature. It is what the teacher does with the information that makes the assessment formative or summative. What may be formative in one class is summative in another (whether it was meant to be or not).
The result of this is that students have a faulty definition of these terms which change from one class period to the next. I’ve asked my students what they think those terms mean. “formatives” are shorter and count for less. “Summatives” are longer and count for more. That’s what I was told universally when I asked my class. If we think that by using these terms were are clarifying things to our students, we are wrong.