Last week, as I was giving a quiz, I was hit right between the eyes with a disturbing sign of the times. As one of my eighth grade girls grabbed the paper I was handing to her, she asked, “is this a summative or a formative quiz?”

At first, I thought that was such a funny thing for her to ask. Then, as I thought about if for a bit, her question began to lose its humor. Why on earth would a 13-year-old ask whether a quiz is summative or formative? Why would she even know what those words mean? I didn’t hear those terms used in conjunction with school assessments until I was in college studying to be a teacher. You might assume that this girl is just extraordinarily bright or has a super vocabulary. No, she’s just a typical eighth grader who knows what formative and summative assessments are because she is already a grizzled veteran in the field of test-taking. This is not natural.

Just that week, our students were taking standardized math tests through a computer program. They take these tests in math and language arts on a regular basis throughout the year to chart their growth — that makes them formative assessments for those of you keeping score at home. The data from these frequent tests is used to try to home in on specific areas of need so that more practice can be given to bolster skills that will be needed to pass the almighty ILEARN tests at the end of the year. ILEARN is a summative test, by the way — and they are what determines which schools are “failing” and whether or not teachers will get any raise the following year … you know, THAT test.

The point I’m trying to make here is that, because of severely misguided education reform written by people who know very little, if anything, about teaching, we have created a new kind of student; one who knows all about formative and summative assessments; one who has been tested to the brink of exhaustion.

If you are over 35 years of age then you might not realize what school has become. I wouldn’t want to be a student today. Things are so much harder than when I was in school. Everything is harder. Learning should be fun. But far too often, students aren’t having much fun these days, and neither are their teachers.

We are testing kids so much that they now think the point of education is to pass a test. Constant testing sucks the joy and creativity out of the learning process. It makes kids dread coming to school. It causes kids great stress and anxiety. It denies kids the freedom of learning for the pure joy of learning. It gives kids a completely wrong idea about what an education is actually all about.

And it creates 13-year-old girls who know what formative and summative assessment means.

Alexandria native Shane Phipps is an author and teacher in Indianapolis. His column appears Mondays in the Herald Bulletin. Email him at and follow him on Twitter


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