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Tasting the Soup Before It's Served: The Case for Formative Assessment

Posted by: Stuart Comstock-Gay on 7/2/2015

I read a lot of articles and books about foundations, performance evaluation, philanthropy, management, strategy, nonprofits, and the social sector. Too many, perhaps. (I also read a lot of fiction, and books about Turkey—but that’s a different story). 

 One that has really grabbed my attention is a new book by Vermonter David Grant: The Social Profit Handbook. Grant is the former CEO of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation in New Jersey, cofounder of the Mountain School at Milton Academy, former town moderator of Vershire, Vermont, and lots of other things.

 I won’t try to recount his whole book. But I will urge you to read it. It’s an easy read—and well worth it. How do we define success for our organization? How do we get there? And how do we assess ourselves along the way? Those are the questions he asks, and he provides simple and elegant tools to get there.

What David does is help us think not just about the final results (summative assessment), but also about formative assessment—the idea that assessment should improve outcomes rather than merely judge them. 

To understand this point, he talks of coaches and teachers of the performing arts. They, he tells us, understand the idea that you need to assess your work all along the way, not just wait until the end:

“This makes perfect sense, for their work is about student performance, not the subject being covered. Imagine a coach saying to a basketball player after losing a championship by one point, ‘I’m not surprised you missed those last two foul shots, because you have had your feet too close together since the first day of practice.’ Or a drama teacher saying to a lead actor at the cast party after the final performance, ‘You know why the audience didn’t react to the climactic line of the play? They couldn’t hear you. You’ve been turning your back to them for the last two weeks.’ Unthinkable.”

Smart and right on. By building a set of rubrics, he says, we can more easily judge ourselves as we go. Are we working from a plan that waits until the project is over to make a judgement, or a plan that judges all along the way? “When the cook tastes the soup, that’s formative assessment. When the customer tastes the soup, that’s summative assessment.” 

We’ve all seen organizations get lost in strategies that are too complicated. We’ve seen organizations abandon their strategies. And we’ve seen too many simply ignore strategy and evaluation. This book provides a simple and powerful set of tools for all of us to embrace assessment and strengthen our work.
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