The Point of Summative and Formative Assessments in Education

The Point of Summative and Formative Assessments in Education

Assessment in education involves gathering, interpreting and using information about the processes and outcomes of learning. It takes different forms and can be used in a variety of ways, such as to record and report achievement, to track progress, to determine appropriate routes for learners to take through a differentiated curriculum, or to identify specific areas of difficulty or strength for a given learner. 

There are really two types of assessments that we report on; these include summative and formative assessments.  The goal of summative assessment is to evaluate student learning at the end of an instructional unit by comparing it against some standard or benchmark. Summative assessments are often high stakes, which means that they have a high point value. Examples of summative assessments include: a midterm exam. a final project, an assessment etc.  Summative assessments are most effective when it moves beyond marks and grades, and reporting focuses not just on how the student has done in the past but on the next steps for further learning. However, parents must realise that any type of formative assessment is just one snap shot of a child in a particular moment of time.  There are many reasons why these tests may not reflect the ability of the child.  This is why we have formative assessments carried out by the teachers who know them best.  Here, they can gather a wide variety of data and assess where children are, on a weekly basis.  Assessment in the classroom can include:

  • Collecting evidence of students’ understanding and thinking
  • Documenting learning processes of groups and individuals
  • Engaging students in reflecting on their learning
  • Students assessing work produced by themselves and by others
  • Developing clear rubrics
  • Identifying exemplary student work and using exemplars as benchmarks  
  • Keeping records of test/task results

The goal of formative assessment is to monitor student learning to provide ongoing feedback that can be used by teachers to improve their teaching and by students to improve their learning. More specifically, formative assessments help students identify their strengths and weaknesses and target areas that need work on a daily/weekly basis.  This type of assessment is very much teacher-led/assessed, and is, today, dominating the British National Curriculum form of assessment, with the collapse of the SATS at all levels. 

With teacher-led formative assessments there is a strong emphasis on assessment as part of the learning process. This approach requires a more varied approach to assessment in ensuring that the assessment method or methods chosen are fit for purpose, timely and relevant to the students. Not only is this assessment based on acquiring a certain amount of knowledge in each subject, but perhaps more importantly the acquisition of key skills in those subjects that become transferable skills across the curriculum.  It allows students and teachers alike to reflect on the work they are doing, and to come up with an agreed form of success criteria against which the quality of the student work can be judged by; and upon the quality of the focused feedback they get in support of their learning.  Providing focused feedback to students on their learning is a critical component of high-quality assessment and a key factor in building students’ capacity to manage their own learning and their motivation to stick with a complex task or problem. 

Essentially, the purpose of any type of assessment and reporting in education is to support learning. All feedback should be constructive, timely and meaningful. Feedback is valuable when it is received, understood and acted on. How students analyse, discuss and act on feedback is as important as the quality of the feedback itself. Through the interaction students have with feedback, they come to understand how to develop their learning.