— Maria Montessori, Spontaneous Activity in Education (p. 240).
There is a lot of talk these days about assessing student performance. Montessorians in the public sector are faced with standardized curriculum and mandated standardized testing, while those in the private sector face questions about how Montessori curriculum aligns to said standards. In addition, private Montessori schools face tough criticism on their philosophy regarding assessment and testing. In fact, a common argument against Montessori education is that there is no accountability due to lack of student assessment.
Formative Versus Summative Assessment: Montessori Philosophy
There are two types of assessments: formative and summative. Formative assessment is the general everyday observations and monitoring of student progress. This type of assessment provides ongoing feedback to teachers and students about how well the student is processing information, whether or not he understood the lessons, and if he mastered the material. Formative assessment tells us if the student needs additional instruction and practice, or if he is ready to move on.
In the Montessori environment, formative assessments are ongoing. Many of the Montessori materials have a built-in control of error, which gives the student immediate feedback on his progress. The control of error allows the student to self-correct his mistakes and continue practicing without adult intervention. This form of low-stakes assessment gently guides the child to mastery. The child has control of his own learning, building self-esteem and self-worth along the way. He knows from the materials when he is ready move on.
Montessori teachers use formative assessments as part of their daily routine, following each and every student. Each student’s interests and progress are individually observed, assessed, and recorded. The teacher makes notations about lessons regarding presentations, practice, and mastery. She closely monitors which materials the student is using and whether he is working with them successfully or if he is making errors. Based on her observations, the Montessori teacher knows when to present new material and when to modify previously presented material for additional understanding.
While the goal of formative assessment is to monitor a student’s progress and provide ongoing feedback, summative assessment is the assessment of the final product. Summative assessments measure how much a student has learned up to a certain point in time: the end of a unit; midterm; the end of a course or year. Exams, term papers, midterms, finals, and standardized tests are all forms of summative assessments meant to rank and hold students (and teachers) accountable for learning. These types of assessments involve comparing students either against benchmarks or against each other. There is more at stake as students must either pass or fail. Failing a summative assessment can be detrimental to a student and have long lasting effects.
It is time to change the way we look at assessment. Instead of looking at it as the end-product of education or what students have learned, we should look at assessment as a means of enhancing student learning. Formative assessments help teachers and students know where students are in their learning, where they are going, and what they need to get there. It is a model that Montessori teachers around the world have been using for over a hundred years.
© North American Montessori Center - originally posted in its entirety at Montessori Teacher Training on Tuesday, January 7, 2014.