The difference between formative and summative assessment

In our last blog post, we introduced formative assessment, talked about its strengths and where it fits into lesson planning. Formative assessment’s role in encouraging metacognition and peer cooperation is thoroughly qualitative. It’s focused on the individual students, their needs, and strengthening their learning process. We also mentioned summative assessment as a complementary form of assessment, but one which holds a different purpose. Let’s look at some of those differences now:

Formative assessment vs. Summative assessment

Formative assessment is an ongoing, flexible, and more informal diagnostic tool. While summative assessment is, as the word implies, an evaluation of the sum product of the lesson. Summative assessments are more formal, structured, and often used to normalize performance so they can be measured and compared.

Summative assessment is meant to evaluate the outcomes, instead of looking at a student’s development at a particular point in time. In that regard, it is more quantitative, and it can be more easily compared, making it an important metric used by teachers, schools, and governments to monitor and evaluate their students’ performance against a common standard. Think of ACT, SAT or any other standardized test (probably why they call it standardized).

The comparison of students final performance against a benchmark can be limiting as it defines only a specific achievement goal. As a result, it requires evaluation along with a standardized path to that goal. While good for quantitative reasons – it does not capture the whole picture in regard to a students progress. Worse, a direct focus on summative assessment by itself can limit the growth of students if they are unable to compete or learn within that standardized model of success. Recognizing those needs, and encouraging growth and feedback during the process is where formative assessment shines.

In addition, research into formative assessment has demonstrated that summative assessments – primarily the use of percentages, pass/fail markings or scale grades often overshadow the comments and support from the formative assessments given alongside them. In this way, it is often best if summative and formative assessments are used at separate times in the teaching process.

Although many assessments are primarily summative, a few also incorporate formative characteristics, and these are where formative and summative assessment can be complimentary. For example, using exit tickets – where students are asked to write three things they learned in that day’s session on a note or “ticket” that is then handed to the teacher on the way out is a strong formative assessment. It can be altered to incorporate a summative aspect by including a pre-set list of questions – e.g. list three things you learned about photosynthesis today. This summative component can go into the participation/attendance grade, while also giving the teacher feedback on levels of understanding from the students.

To sum up:

Summative assessment:

  • Fixed, end of lesson/module/course evaluation
  • A formal process, which is highly structured
  • Normalizes scores for comparison against a pre-decided standard
  • Evaluates the end result, not the process
  • Produces a grade

Formative assessment:

  • Ongoing and flexible evaluation which is incorporated into the lesson
  • Informal process, designed to give feedback and affect lesson
  • Focuses on the individual performance and needs of students
  • Produces feedback to meet those needs
  • Opens communication and focuses on growth, not grades

Formative & Summative assessment infographic

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