2 Types of Assessment: Which One Do Montessori Schools Favor?

Assessment is a topic often discussed in the many corners of the education world.  Whether a child is enrolled in their local public school, an independent school, or is homeschooled, assessment will most likely play a role in that experience.  To what extent it plays varies greatly, however, as does the prevalence of the different styles of assessment.

Parents often have strong feelings about assessment, although their perspectives can vary greatly.  Many are frustrated by the now-common high-stakes testing, the amount of time testing can take, and the young age at which formal assessments are now taking place.  Others, with their child’s future firmly in the forefront of their mind, want to be sure there are assessments in place that will clearly identify their child’s strengths and weaknesses.

So why do we assess in the first place?

One important reason is to measure learning.  Another is to (theoretically) encourage success.

We pose the following questions:  How do we define success?  What exactly is it that we value and want to encourage in our children?  What kinds of time restraints should (or should not) be placed on children as they progress through the learning of various skills?  Should learning be measured in a standardized and linear fashion?

The following types of assessment are regularly used in educational settings.  We describe each one and take a look at how Montessori does (or does not) implement them.

Formative Assessment

Formative assessment can be classified by the following characteristics:

  • It is generally done while the student is learning.

  • It is either unobtrusive or minimally intrusive to student work.

  • It is almost never graded.

  • It allows teachers to shift their approach mid-lesson.

Summative Assessment

Summative assessment is quite different.  It can be classified by these characteristics:

  • It is done periodically to determine whether a student has mastered a skill/skills.

  • Learning and instruction must stop and time must be set aside to administer assessment.

  • Grades/scores are typically assigned.

  • It serves to categorize students and define success/failure.

Just by reading through the characteristics you will likely draw your own conclusions as to which style is more helpful to both students and teachers.

Keep in mind that in Montessori schools, we believe the following basic principles:

  1. Learning is not linear. There are general developmental phases that children pass through, but we recognize that there is great variation among individuals. This variation is honored and even celebrated. One of the greatest benefits of our three year cycles is that teachers have that much time to work with children and guide them toward various goals. Most teachers understand that a child may progress in reading for 6 months while their math skills plateau, but that could easily switch in time. Not feeling the pressure of having a child for one year only allows us to support natural learning and growth, and to let children learn according to more normal timelines.

  2. We believe that children do not need to compete with one another, but rather draw on internal motivation to better themselves. Grades lead to such competition. All people have areas of strength and areas that we may have to work harder at. When children begin comparing themselves to one another, many will be left with completely unnecessary feelings of inadequacy. Such dips in self-confidence can take a serious toll on children in the long term.

  3. To expand upon point number three, we do not utilize external rewards. We find them ineffective and would rather guide children toward trusting their own process. There is significant scientific research that backs this approach. More on that here.

  4. We provide learning materials that allow children to assess themselves. Most Montessori materials are autodidactic, that is the children learn the skill just from using them. If there is a series of different sized pegs with corresponding holes to place them in, there is only one way to complete the activity correctly. When a child is working independently with such a material and the last peg does not fit into the last remaining hole, they know a mistake has been made along the way and they can work toward correcting it.

  5. Scientific observation is the most effective method for teachers to learn about students’ understanding. Dr. Montessori based her entire set of teaching methods on what she had observed about children’s learning over a span of 40+ years. Her constant observations allowed her to make changes in the environment and her approach. We believe this form of assessment to be the most effective tool we have. Montessori guides observe the children to determine what changes need to be made in their instruction in order to meet academic goals, but we also observe how the environment serves the children so that it can act as another tool to support learning.

What it boils down to is that we hope to teach children how to learn, not how to get a good grade.  We want them to be enamored with the world and find a deep and authentic desire to learn as much as they can about it.  We do not wish to interrupt their learning with tests that do not actually serve them in the long run; rather we believe that the summative assessment approach of highly trained and skilled educators is the best way to support growth.

Assessment in Montessori Schools

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Testing is a hot-button topic for many families.  When making decisions regarding your child’s education, it’s important to know a school’s stance on assessments.  Read on to get an idea of where Montessori schools stand.

Let’s Define Assessment…

Merriam-Webster defines assessment as:

“the action or an instance of making a judgment about something : the act of assessing something”.

If we take a look at the evolution of the word itself, we find that assess comes from the Latin word assidere, which means ‘to sit beside’.

While any type of assessment is a means of judging progress, Montessori teachers take the Latin root to heart.  We literally sit beside the child, observing and assessing as we go.

While there are many different forms assessment can take, most of them can fit into two main categories: formative and summative assessment.  Formative assessment happens while the teaching and learning is taking place.  This is the type that Montessori teachers rely heavily on.  It allows teachers to shift gears mid-lesson and to get an instant record of how a child is doing with a particular skill at any given moment.  Summative assessment is more like your traditional test at the end of a unit, or a major standardized test at the end of the year.  These tests are typically data collection points and are often used mostly by the adults and not to give feedback to the student.  

How Do Montessori Teachers Track Progress?

Notes.  Notebooks full of thoughtful and detailed handwritten notes.  At least that’s the traditional way of recording progress.  Many schools are now shifting over to digital platforms that are created for and cater specifically to Montessori schools and their goals and values.  Still, many Montessori teachers continue to keep their own detailed records by hand.

Montessori teachers are masters of observation.  They think like scientists and spend lots of time sitting back and quietly watching the children at work.  When they’re not giving lessons, they’re observing.  They write all these observations down and then review them later to help decide what lessons to revisit, what new materials to present, or even what parts of the classroom environment need attention or change. 

How is Mastery Evaluated?

Often, mastery is evaluated while the teacher is giving a lesson.  Montessori developed a fascinating tool called the ‘three-period lesson’.  When a teacher is presenting new material to a child, they may only present the first period, or the first two, depending upon how the child reacts to the work during the lesson.  When the teacher suspects mastery, the third period portion will be given.  There is a certain amount of variation depending on the subject matter, but the general pattern is as follows:

  • First Period: “This is ____.” The teacher introduces the skill.  If the child is to learn the parts of a mountain, the teacher may say, “This is the summit.  The summit is the highest point of a mountain.”  A visual will be presented along with any other supporting materials.
  • Second Period: “Where is ____?” The teacher provides part of the information and asks the child to identify the rest.  For example the cards highlighting the various parts of the mountain may be laid out and the teacher asks the child to point to each defined part in turn.  “Where is the summit?”
  • Third Period: “What is ____?” The teacher is determining whether the child can independently recall the information.  The mountain cards are now laid out without any labels, and the child must identify the parts without any cues.  “What is this part?”

The best part?  Because of the beauty of the materials and the tone of the classroom, the child perceives this as a sort of game rather than a test to be dreaded.

What About When Children Get Older?

Parents often wonder how their children will make the transition into their local public schools or other more traditional private schools once they age out of their Montessori school.  This is where there’s a little more variability.  Different schools take different approaches, but some give the option of offering some form of standardized testing for their oldest students.  This could be in the form of state testing, or something similar.  This testing is typically not a requirement, but is sometimes an option for students or families who are interested.  Contact us to learn more about how our school handles this transition.

A Note About Self-Assessment:

Montessori classrooms are not just designed for teachers to assess the students, but also for the students to assess themselves.  This is done in two main ways.

Most Montessori materials are autodidactic, that is they are self-teaching.  They have been intentionally developed in such a way that the child can not complete the work incorrectly, or there is a built-in means for them to check their own work.  This looks different at the different levels and is best understood by visiting a classroom to observe, which we always encourage parents and prospective parents to do when they are curious.  When given a lesson on how to use a material correctly, the children learn about these built-in tools and how they can use them to guide their work.

Secondly, Montessori students are taught to be reflective.  As they get older (typically elementary and above), individual meetings with their teacher give them the opportunity to be an active participant in planning their own education.  They are not told what they must do, but they are asked how they plan to accomplish specific goals.  Some of these goals are set by the teacher but others are set by the child.  When needed, teachers will give strategies and suggestions, but the hope is that eventually the child will develop more of these on their own.  

We want our children to be able to take a look at their work and evaluate it with a critical eye, while still basking in the joy of accomplishment and learning.  By not passing obvious judgement in the form of grades or other traditional feedback methods, Montessori children come to see their learning as a constantly fluctuating process that they are empowered by.  If we can instill those values in them as children just imagine what they will be capable of as adults.