Formative vs. Summative Assessments: What's the Difference?

Formative vs. Summative Assessments: What's the Difference?

Odette Falone

When we hear assessment, we usually think of formal education and students trying their best to answer questions on a piece of paper in complete silence. However, even in education, assessments can take many forms. And, if you’re a teacher, supervisor, principal, or even an involved parent, chances are you’ve heard of terms like summative vs. formative assessments, internal vs. external (state-wide) assessments, or maybe even placement and diagnostic assessments. 

What do all of them mean?

In its most general form, the concept of assessment refers to all activities that people use to quantify and systematically document another person’s knowledge, skills, attitudes, or even beliefs. The purpose of assessments is a societal attempt at standardizing knowledge and skills, so we can track progress among individuals, see whether the material was understood, and predict future performance. 

Because the concept is so broad, there are many ways to classify all the different types of assessments found in an educational context. Yet, one of the most popular and inclusive ways to classify assessment types is based on their objective in education. Therefore, based on the objective, we recognize four different assessment types: placement, diagnostic, formative, and summative assessments.

Let’s briefly review them all and then specifically focus on summative vs. formative assessments, so you can fully understand their place, purpose, and use within the curriculum.

Types of Educational Assessment

Being able to distinguish between all the different types of assessments allows teachers and administrators to create better policies and leverage the insights assessments bring without overwhelming the students.

As we already mentioned, the most popular way to classify assessments is based on their objective, so let’s see what each of these assessment types involves.

Placement Assessment

Placement assessment is when schools use formal or even standardized tests and previous achievements to rank and place students at the most appropriate level, find them the most suitable teacher, or even figure out whether they’re a good fit for the school.

Diagnostic Assessment

Diagnostic assessment is a tool to help identify differences in learning or potential learning difficulties. This allows teachers to make sure all students can follow the pace of the group and receive the attention they need to fulfill their full educational potential.

Summative vs. Formative Assessments

The reason why formative and summative assessments are the current hot topic in education is because they represent what we typically mean when we say assessment. They’re created by the teachers and used in the classroom to assess students' progress on the subject material. However, the similarities end here.

In short, formative assessments are smaller tests or quizzes, polls, or even game-like evaluations that teachers use throughout the course to gather insights about the students’ knowledge or skills. On the other hand, summative assessments, as the word suggests, are tests at the end of the course, semester, or term that evaluate how much knowledge students have accumulated during the course.

The objective between these two evaluations is different. For formative assessments the objective is for teachers to gather feedback, understand how their lecturing is being received, understand how their students are progressing, and identify potential difficulties that need to be addressed.

For summative assessment, the objective is for teachers to evaluate how much students have learned. This way, teachers can place students on a standardized scale that allows higher educational institutions or recruiters to make judgements about their accumulated knowledge/skills.

Let’s explain their benefits and use in greater detail and provide actual examples that will help you understand formative and summative assessments a lot better.

Formative Assessments

Formative assessments are all activities that educators use to evaluate students’ learning progress during the course. They’re very versatile and can be used on a daily or weekly basis.

The purpose of formative assessments is to monitor students’ progress - not grade it or quantify it. They’re a valuable source of feedback that teachers can use to adjust their teaching pace, identify where students struggle, and continue with the curriculum in a way that suits students’ needs best.

Because of this, formative assessments are also called assessments for learning.

When they’re designed properly and students understand their purpose, formative assessments can guide students and encourage self-awareness and self-discipline through the feedback they’ll receive. This is because they'll see how much of the lecture material they have actually consolidated and are capable of using it on their own.

How Do Formative Assessments Work?

Another characteristic thing about formative assessments is that they work best when they’re used consistently. This means on a regular schedule; whether that’s daily, weekly, or bi-weekly is up to you. The reason for this is that with continuity, teachers will be able to estimate students’ progress much more accurately. 

When students do one test or quiz or even play a game, their performance is a result not only of their skills, but also some unpredicted (X) factors, such as sleepiness, tiredness, anxiety, emotional state, interest in the topic, lucky guesses, and so on. These X factors can’t be controlled nor removed from the equation, but they vary from one test to another. Because of this, doing regular tests and averaging the results can paint a much clearer picture of the students’ actual skills. 

Insights from Regular Formative Assessments

To give you an example, let’s imagine that a student has done five formative assessments in math in the last month. Their performance on all the tests but one is excellent. However, on the last quiz they did significantly worse than what they usually do. Here’s how teachers can interpret this.

The first step is to contextualize the student's performance. For instance, because of the previous examples of the students’ performance, teachers can identify this outcome as abnormal or atypical behavior that requires their attention. On the other hand, if this was a summative assessment, the conclusion would be that the student’s knowledge of the matter is poor.

The second step is for teachers to check the curriculum to see whether the poor performance is associated with a particular topic. Then, they should see whether the other students performed worse than usual on this topic as well. If yes, it indicates that they were probably underprepared for the topic in question, but if everyone else performed as they usually do, teachers should focus on the individual.

If teachers realize that only one or two students performed suboptimally, the third step is to have a talk with them to figure out if it is something that requires further action or it’s due to circumstantial factors, like:

  • problems at home; 
  • problems with peers;
  • difficulty understanding the topic;
  • performance anxiety;
  • tiredness
  • not being prepared
  • being distracted
  • technical problems (if it was online), etc.

By now, you can see how formative assessments give a solid framework for teachers to identify problems and give students the attention they need to overcome obstacles and realize their full learning potential.

Formative Assessments Types

Based on who’s involved, formative assessments can be divided in three categories:

  • Teacher-led assessments - tests/quizzes designed, monitored, and evaluated by the teacher. 
  • Peer-led assessments - tests/quizzes designed by the students or teachers, but monitored and evaluated by groups of students (group work, work in pairs, etc). 
  • Self-assessment - tests/quizzes designed by students or teachers, but monitored and evaluated by the students individually (individual work, homework, self-assessment, etc).

Another way to classify formative assessments is based on the resources used. Classical assignments consist of a piece of paper and a pencil. However, formative assignments can take many forms, including:

  • group presentations;
  • in-class games;
  • online quizzes;
  • digital or physical flashcards (whether for self-assessment or in class);
  • learning platforms based on gamification;
  • hands-on activities;
  • debates, and more.

Below, we’ll share a few examples of popular formative assessments in education.

Examples of Formative Assessments

Formative assignments should encourage creative expression, be related to the course material, and reflect the skills and knowledge students are in the process of learning. Here are three unique examples.

  1. Creating a Video Response

Today, students are incredibly tech-savvy and are comfortable with technology. Teachers can use that to their advantage and ask students to create a video on a specific topic.

Online assessment tools, such as Flipgrid, can easily turn this idea into a reality. Flipgrid is an incredibly simple learning platform that allows students to respond with a video on teachers’ questions or assignments.

This is a great way to see how students will decide to express themselves and find creative ways to complete the assignment in a video format. Open-ended questions, as well as drawing or storytelling assignments usually suit this format well.

Students can document the growth of a plant (for biology), the movement of the stars (for astrology), make an animated infographic about their favorite town (for geography), and so on.

  1. “My Learning Board” Group Work

Organize students into groups of four or five individuals and ask them to fill out a collage-style board with some of the most important things they have learned so far, key ideas, skills, and expectations (what they expect to learn in the future).

After they’re done, ask the groups to present their board to the class and explain why they included the things they did. This way, everyone will get a chance to see what others have learned, what they think is important, and what they expect in the future.

At the end of the assignments, encourage students to share their thoughts, so together you can reach a conclusion on the most important ideas, highlights, and skills for that topic/course/subject.

  1. Online Quizzes

Digital classrooms are far from perfect, but when it comes to formative assessments, technology is your friend. Game-based learning platforms, such as Kahoot, are an amazing tool for revising the material while having fun.

You can create small quizzes with 5-6 questions regarding some of the key ideas or highlights of the previous lecture. Then, 5 to 10 minutes before the next lecture starts, students can answer the quiz on their phones while you read out the questions.

In the end, the three fastest and most accurate students will get a gold medal from Kahoot - a symbolic recognition that’s stimulating and encourages a friendly competition, but it does not affect the students' grades.

Finally, you can use the insights from Kahoot later to assess your student’s knowledge on that particular topic.

Summative Assessments

Summative assessments represent the more typical exams or school tests at the end of the year. Their goal is to measure the students’ knowledge at the end of an instructional unit by comparing it to some standard or benchmark. The most popular examples of summative assessments are high stakes, standardized tests in the US, such as the SATS or other graduation exams.

Summative assessments are almost always at the end of the year or a semester, unless the teacher decides to cut the material into smaller, independent units. If that’s the case, then students usually get a final grade that’s an average of all the summative assessments throughout the year.

As you can see, while formative assessments provide informal feedback and aid the learning process, summative assessments have a more deterministic nature and significantly impact the students’ future.

Because of this, summative assessments have a bad reputation. Experts and educational policy-makers have an ongoing debate about the positive and negative impacts of summative assessments in education, especially in young students. 

Advantage of Summative Assessments

Here are some of the benefits this type of assessment provides.

  • Summative assessments provide structure, transparency, and clear framework for educational institutions to evaluate and compare students’ yearly progress, even transgenerationally (comparisons between generations).
  • Summative assessments provide students with a standardized and accredited proof of their achievements.
  • Contrary to popular belief, when done properly, summative assessments motivate students to work harder.
  • Summative assessments are the foundation of almost all academic reports (especially in higher education).

Disadvantage of Summative Assessments

On the other hand, the downsides of summative assessments include:

  • Causing performance anxiety and stress in students.
  • Causing demotivation and fear in students.
  • Questionable validity - since there are no do-overs and students get only one chance, many people are questioning whether the results are an actual representation of students’ skills.
  • Not a good representation of the school's curriculum - one assessment at the end can’t cover all the major points that have been taught throughout the year.

Examples of Summative Assessments

Unlike formative assessments, summative evaluations are not flexible nor creative. On the contrary, they’re formal, standardized, with a very fixed structure, and  most of the time, teachers must follow the schools’ evaluation requirements when they create them.

Summative assessments can also be imposed by the state. There are statewide formal evaluations created by the ministry or state departments of education and they’re the same for everyone. Examples of popular statewide summative assessments include SATs, TA SAK, CLT, Stanford Achievement Test, TerraNova, PSAT/NMSQT, and others.

Other examples of summative assessments include:

  • End of year exams for specific subjects. For instance, finals in math, English literature, physics, and more.
  • Special program learning qualifications such as the International Baccalaureates.
  • End of class projects or papers - requirements that students must complete to successfully finish the course, gain credits, and/or move to more advanced courses.
  • In-depth reports - the teachers provide quantitative as well as qualitative (structured) feedback of the students’ engagement level, efforts, and skills.
  • Hands-on projects  - in higher education, students might sometimes get a chance to complete a hands-on project where they’ll have to use all the skills they’ve learned to successfully finish it. For instance, conducting a social experiment (social studies), designing a diet (nutrition), building a robot (engineering), building an app (computer science), and so on.
  • Cumulative portfolio - in arts or other creative programs, students might need to showcase a portfolio of all of their assignments throughout the year. For instance, a collection of their drawings, paintings, photographs, sculptures, creative writing projects, and so on.

The last two examples are very atypical and unique summative assessments that are usually applied in university programs or other specialized training programs, not public schools.

Summative vs. Formative Assessments: Which is Better?

An ongoing debate and controversy is surrounding the concept of assessment, especially summative assessments and assessments in early education. For instance, there are concerns that educational institutions have become assessment-led rather than learning-led. In the US, high-stake tests such as high school graduation examinations or exit examinations are causing the most controversy, and they’re summative assessments.

Naturally, this has led to revolution that aims to make knowledge-building practices a priority. Some believe the answer is in formative assessments.

Are formative assessments the answer?

There are many ways in which formative assessments are better. For instance, formative assessments promote collaboration, curiosity, and engagement, and give teachers valuable insights about the students’ progress while there’s still time for them to intervene

Summative assessments, on the other hand, pit students against each other because their objective is to compare their performance and rank them. This leads to anxiety, resentment, and frustration. On top of that, many people question their validity. Can one test authentically represent the students' knowledge, skills, and their potential for learning? What if a student who knows the material, is incredibly smart, curious, driven, passionate, and gives 110% in every class fails because they have a crippling test anxiety?

While concerns like these are completely justified, without summative assessments the whole educational system will have to be redefined from the ground up. And, it doesn’t seem like we have an answer for all the questions that follow. For instance, what happens to accreditation (a review process to determine if educational programs meet defined standards of quality)?

This means that while yes, formative assessments are better, they’re not a replacement for summative assessments. So, for now, we need to understand their value and work to redefine and improve aspects of them. 

To conclude, while the debate on the topic of summative vs. formative assessment is valuable, both evaluations have their place and use in schools, especially higher education. Teachers and administrators need to understand their impact on students, and work to provide a better, more relaxed atmosphere with a framework that’s focused on learning.

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