Driving in the Dark

By Mary Coverdale, Director of The Learner First, Australia.

When you drive at night your vision is limited by the scope and quality of the car headlights. You can see an arc in front of you that guides you along the road. At the edges of the light, shapes are hard to discern. Sometimes, they are simply silhouettes. Outside the arc it’s hard to see anything. The speed you’re driving, and how hard you’re looking, make little difference to your understanding and appreciation of the landscape you’re traveling through.

During the day, as you drive that same road, you can both see and appreciate the landscape. It does make a difference if you travel at speed or take your time. You concentrate on different things because more of your senses are activated. You can see all around you and discern in a way you can’t when your vision is limited. The experience is completely different—and so, the language you can use to describe it is vastly different from the night-time experience.

It’s the same with summative and formative assessment. Summative assessment is the night-time journey—it allows you to see a small part of the student. It’s not possible, from one test, to determine the scope or depth of understanding a student may have about a subject, let alone to understand other aspects of the learner—who they are, what they value, their sense of purpose, and more. The power in this context is denied to the student. They are not given agency, and the outcome is fixed, prized by the system as immutable truth.

Formative assessment provides much-needed scope. It enlarges the possibilities for students to demonstrate what they know, in the ways that make most sense for them as individuals. Supporting students to demonstrate learning episodically, in real time, in a variety of forms, and in both formal and informal representations, is akin to observing the nuances in the landscape as you drive down the road in the full light of day. The slower the pace, the more time you have to see and experience the variations in the colors, the light, and the geography. The capacity to see broadly enriches the experience, endowing it with meaning in a way that the scope of the night-time drive—the summative assessment—simply cannot achieve on its own.

Trusting the professionalism of our teachers, building their capacity to see the whole learner while working within the achievement standards, and re-culturing the concept of educational assessment around who learners are and what they each need. These aims are essential for shaping our world with compassion, empathy, justice, and equity.