Are We Marking Assignments or Assessing Learning?

Good ole spreadsheets.

CC Image from Joseph Thibault https://flic.kr/p/6Fg2z2

There has been much focus on shifting our assessment practices in education and, particularly in BC, moving toward more Assessment For Learning (or formative assessment) in schools.  This is such an important conversation and needed change but at some point along the way, Assessment OF Learning (or summative assessment) has been given a bad rap.  To have sound assessment practices in a classroom and school, we need a solid balance of ongoing formative assessment (click here for more info) as well as an effective way to verify that learning has occurred (summative).  Formative assessment should be where we spend most of our time, but summative assessments are still very important.

As we engage in dialogue in our school around assessment, I recently posed a question at our staff meeting that said:

Are we marking assignments or assessing learning outcomes?

Although I failed to provide enough time to discuss this at our staff meeting, the conversation spilled over into the hallways and the staff meeting the next morning as teachers engaged in some (at times frustrating) dialogue around the topic of summative assessment.

For the vast majority of the teaching portion of my career (high school math/science/PE as well as intermediate), I developed assignments and tests/quizzes based on the curriculum, arbitrarily assigned each question or portion of the project a point total, and then marked students work based on their “learning” demonstrated in each question/portion.  I would then tally the points and give them a total like 17/21.  This is how I was assessed in school and how most of the teachers around me at the time assessed student work.

In my 6th year of teaching, I was evaluated by my principal and during this, he asked me a question that changed my mindset on assessment. At the time, I was fond of my spreadsheets and all the marks that I had in them (I now look back and realized how I used spreadsheets to fool parents, students, and myself into thinking that assessment was objective).  There was a student in my math class that was failing and we were discussing my frustrations with her because she did well on tests and quizzes but never handed in any assignments (I was even marking homework at the time… ugh).  He asked me, “what are you assessing?”.  I responded proudly with my knowledge of the curricular outcomes and he challenged me by saying, “do you think that you are adding to other aspects of your class to the assessment?” and he continued to ask, “are you assessing tasks or assessing the outcomes?”.  I stopped and had no response. I was failing a student who knew many of the learning outcomes… simply because she did not hand in or complete all of her work.  She actually had learned something in my class and I failed to acknowledge this. The marking system I used was great for putting into a computerized grade book to come up with a percentage but I had very little knowledge of which outcomes the students had learned and which they struggled.  This system also provided me with very little feedback on my teaching. The dialogue between my principal and I continued but from that point on, I started planning the assignments and summative assessments not based on tasks, but with the learning outcomes in mind.

As I moved into vice principalship and life in an intermediate classroom (grades 5 and 6), I continued to plan with the outcomes in mind.  Assignments, projects and quizzes were based on the learning outcomes.  Each section was an assessment of an outcome.  My spreadsheet shifted from arbitrary points on assignments and randomly weighted tasks to how each child was assessed on the learning outcomes.  By planning my assessments with outcomes in mind, I found I marked WAY less and had a better understanding of where my students were at in their learning.  Check out a good video from Rick Wormeli on grade books at the bottom of this post.

There is so much more to be discussed about effective summative assessment practices (standards, late marks, zeros, bonus marks, redos, assessment types, grading consistency as well as assessing effort, etc…) but I really believe that an important question to start with is:

Are we marking assignments or are we assessing LEARNING?

What do we need to do right now to start to make this shift in our schools?  How are you making this shift?

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Chris Wejr

Proud father of twin girls and a son. Currently working as the Principal of Shortreed Elementary School (K-5) in Aldergove, BC, Canada. Passionate about instruction, strengths-based education and leadership, reconciliation, assessment, and human motivation.


  1. These are great thoughts, Chris. I especially appreciate the Rick Wormeli video as it captures much of what I’ve been trying to do in assessment for years. Even now, I’m trying to visualize 3D grade books! I also wonder why anyone would record formative assessment pieces except for conversation pieces on elementary report cards to discuss areas that students have been progressing at.

    If I can share a summative practise that I’ve been using for a while in math, my assessments (formerly known as tests) are created so that there are 2-5 questions that provide opportunity to demonstrate competence with an outcome. When I mark, I provide a checklist for students that shows what those outcomes are, which questions address each outcome, how the student performed on each questions and how they performed on each outcome. At a glance, it provides a very visual indication of how the student performed on that unit, and it is very easy for me to circle “approaches / partially meets / fully meets / exceeds” expectations for the grade level at the bottom of the form. It doesn’t take long before students and parents stop asking what letter grade they got because I point out that this feedback tells them exactly what they know, don’t know, and are making progress on. The most unfortunate part is that I have to convert that to a letter grade three times a year for report cards.

    • Hey Jeremy – I would LOVE to see this and share it with staff. I will email and see if you are ok with me grabbing an example. Thank you so much for adding this idea… great to see good ideas being implemented.

  2. Great post Chris! Thank you. As a beginning teacher this really gives me something to think about.

    • Thanks, buddy. I think it is often more difficult for an experienced teacher to make changes as they have developed countless hours of assignments and summative assessment that may have some misalignment with this approach. If we start planning with the objectives in mind, then our summative assessments are based on these and become a little clearer. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  3. Great post, Chris. I followed a similar path, with lots of spreadsheets, and am not so proud of some of what I did in retrospect. When I look at my own kids’ work, I feel like many teachers and administrators still need to have the conversation you had years ago. To what extent do we assess these things by ‘accident’ or by tradition?

    1 – Compliance
    2 – Effort
    3 – Thoroughness
    4 – Attention to detail
    5 – Timeliness (I still discuss this one with secondary math colleagues who resist ‘throwing away’ grades from early assessments when a student shows mastery later…)
    6 – Artistry
    7 – Elegance (in secondary math, perhaps?)

    Maybe some of these are germane in one or another subject area, but most often, probably not. It’s challenging, though, to look at what I do, and assess my own assessment objectively. It’s critical to have a trusted colleague who can ask tough questions without judgement, and I think we, as educational leaders, need to offer opportunities for people to have those conversations.

    I think the spreadsheet might still be a workable tool, though, if we look at specific outcomes (even at secondary), rather than assessment tool categories as our organizing structure. I think the best spreadsheet does not calculating, but keeps a running record of what a student can do, and how well.

    • Sean, you bring up some key points. We often bring in other aspects of learning (beyond the outcomes) that we feel are important and think that we must include these in a mark or the students will not think it is important. What I learned is to focus on these in the formative and they end up being better in the summative.

      For your comment on worksheets, I feel that they too have been given a bad rap. Shouldn’t we be talking about the task that is ON the worksheet rather than generalizing that all worksheets are bad? If the worksheet is the first step toward guided inquiry and is based on learning outcomes for a unit, is this a bad thing?

      Thanks for adding these pieces to the discussion as they are so important as we move forward.

  4. Chris, A subject that is near and dear to my heart as you know. You have asked a question that I think many that are working through a shift will find helpful. I have been asking a lot of my student teachers to consider “What does good look like?” in their various subject areas. If the learning intention is about analysis then it is important to use words to describe what effective analysis is. This is impossible to do in spread sheets and through random numbers and percentages.

    I am curious to see how programs such as Freshgrade (the jury is still out on that one for me) might support more authentic summative assessment. I am also curious to see how schools that use programs like Check My Mark (the verdict for me is in on this one) might have to reconsider as it might not be the best way to report student learning.

    My other tension with these technology pieces is that we can’t lose sight of having students become responsible for documenting, reflecting on and ‘reporting’ their own learning. Student ownership is so important if we want our students leaving schools knowing how to learn and not being reliant on others to tell them if they are doing a good job or not.

    Again, thanks for keeping the conversation going!

    • I love the question, “what does good look like?” I am reading the book series “creating independent student learners” right now which is the story of the shift to AFL that happened in a Manitoba school district. One of the key questions they ask is just that “do the students know what good looks like?”

      I worry when schools are using “innovative technology” to create percentages… as it does not seem to be moving us in the right direction. It may be easier to weight tasks and calculate percentages, but this is misaligned with the goals of summative assessment.

      Thanks for adding the importance of ownership as this was something that was missed in the post.

      Hopefully, we get to meet up again soon!

  5. Hi there. We are a small startup Canadian, edutech company. We built, and recently launched a cross-platfrom assessment application called QUIO that supports formative assessment with a summative view. It was created in collaboration with Kathleen Gregory and Caren Cameron – BC assessment consultants/educators. We have had input as well from other educators such as Faye Brownlie and Ruth Sutton. QUIO brings together assessment tasks, core competencies, BC curriculum, AND parent engagement. Students are able to upload their own work. Collecting evidence is purposeful with QUIO (we do not want teachers to be simply “data gatherers” – collecting everything and anything all day–they need to focus on the learning in their class). QUIO’s learning map and digital portfolio provides a point of conversation between the teacher-student-parent about what the learning looks like – and next steps. And the Learning Map is flexible. We have teachers using QUIO with UDL, inquiry and backward design. I hope you would have a look and consider giving it a try (it is free) at quio.ca.

    • Hey Suzanne – I admire the work of Gregory, Cameron, Brownlie, and Sutton. I will definitely have a look. Is the data stored in Canada? Thanks!

  6. Hey buddy, another great post! My thoughts on assessment seems to constantly change, and posts like this, and coming from you, creates even deeper thought. Backwards design, or outcomes first, is where I’m currently dabbling. But that too has flaws. I like to use the concept of there are many ways to Vancouver, but some kids can’t reach there no matter what, but exceed going east to Hope. But against the outcomes this student struggles.

    I do agree with you that there is a place for both forms of assessment, but within the formative I also like the “as” so students can direct own learning.

    Anyways great post again!

    • Yes, the “as” is a whole nother level of assessment and one in which students truly take learning into their own hands (and minds). Would love to hear how you are moving to more “as learning” as well!

  7. Love this topic and the direction it leads us – are we rewarding those that are good at ‘playing school’ and completing tasks, or are we communicating the learning journey of all students! Our move to eportfolios definitely shifted our schools look at assessments – for the better – focus on learning outcomes (and exploring the beta curriculums Big Questions)
    The big shift for me came when I replaced the top of my spreadsheets away from tasks and instead used learning outcomes – it started me thinking different about how my class was organized : task completion (which works for reporting achievement on those) or communicating student learning which is task agnostic!

  8. Love your question: What are we assessing? Every teacher should ask themselves if their “marking” practices reflect their beliefs about learning. WHY are you assessing?

    For me my philosophy is simple: students’ energy should be focused on learning rather than being anxious about judgements and marks. Students should be a key participant in assessment and should always know where they are at in their learning: their strengths, weaknesses and plan for improvement. OWNERSHIP OF LEARNING!

    My high school math students do not receive any letter grades or percents on their work. Our learning is centered on Math skills and the feedback they receive is connected to those skills: what did they show, what did they do well, where can they improve and what can they do to improve. Students analyze their errors when they receive feedback on their work. They are an essential member of the assessment process and control the steps to improve their learning.
    As a teacher I struggle to see any task as 100% summative as I will never refuse if a student wants to practice a skill more and demonstrate their learning again!

  9. I really connected with a lot of the content in your blog. It is my fear, too often than not, that many educators are just “marking assignments and not really assessing learning”. One of the reasons may be that some educators truly don’t have a comprehensive understanding of the differences between formative and summative assessment and its function. Also, some educators equate learning with “task completion” and not a student’s ability to demonstrate mastery of desired learning outcomes. Finally, I feel some educators do not understand the true purpose and function of the curriculum’s they are required to teach. In essence, they truly don’t understand the purposes of essential questions, the big ideas, and learner outcomes. Therefore, due to a lack of understanding, which may or may not be their fault, giving grades becomes more about a number or percentage rather than about assessing what a student has truly learned. Learning involves so much more than just covering content and applying numbers to correct answers. It is about creating meaningful, purposeful, engaging twenty-first century learning experiences in which students master learning outcomes and are truly prepared to meet the needs and demands of an ever changing global society. “Marking assignments without truly assessing learning is a waste of both educator and student time and potential.”

    • Hey Eric – you summed up me in my first few years of teaching rather well. I was so busy trying to cover the curriculum and learn the skills of teaching that I didn’t take the time to have the bigger picture in mind. Then, I had created all these lessons so I didn’t feel it was worth it to go back and redo things. When I shifted grades (secondary to elementary) it was a great opportunity to start fresh and begin with the end in mind. It is difficult for teachers who have been teaching this way for many years to feel like they are restarting so that is why we talk on staff about starting with one lesson, one unit, one day and building from there. Not easy for many of us but so much better in the end. Thanks for the great insights!

  10. Yes our data is stored in Canada. We have bank level protection, that has been audited! We would love to show you QUIO if you have time to Skype i could give you a quick tour!

  11. Thanks for this! We had some of the same issues–our kids learn differently, partly due to PTSD and early neglect. Thankfully, we were able to change schools and both the administration and the teachers are more concerned with outcomes. It’s been so amazing.

    FYI, I usually forget to open the actual post, but I’ve read several of your other posts–really phenomenal stuff. Thanks so much for advocating!

  12. Hey Pal,

    First, hope you are well! It’s been WAAAYYYY too long since we connected. I miss that.

    Second, your family picture in the top right hand corner of your blog made me smile! Completely beautiful. I hope your daughters are digging first grade! Mine is a ball of energy — and I dig that!

    Finally, I love the question that you asked your staff. It’s totally rolling through my mind right now. The simple truth is that most of the time, I’m giving grades rather than assessing learning. That’s a response to community pressure to have enough grades in the gradebook and to give kids enough chances to make it on the Honor Roll.


    Anyway, know that I’m thinking about you — and that you are making me think!

    Rock on,

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