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Formative vs Summative Assessment: What’s the Difference?

Formative vs Summative Assessment: What's the Difference?

Formative vs Summative Assessment: What’s the Difference?

Formative and summative assessment are two of the cornerstones of effective instruction, but it’s common to confuse the terms themselves — so, to better understanding formative vs summative assessment, let’s begin by defining both.

We’ve examined a variety of definitions for “formative assessment” (check out our analysis here), and came up with the following definition to contextualize our thinking:

“Formative assessment is every purposeful exchange between teacher and student that checks for understanding, and that is used to adjust and enhance learning.”

So, how does that differ from summative assessment?  Well, more often than not, formative and summative assessment are presented in a manner that makes them seem like they have a dichotomous relationship — that is, if an assessment isn’t formative, it’s summative, and vice-versa.  But in practice, this isn’t really the case. If we simply tweak the above definition by (1) changing the word “formative” to “summative,” and (2) removing the clause that says “and that is used to adjust and enhance learning” … tada!  Summative assessment!

The essential difference, when considering formative vs summative assessment, is as straightforward as that.  Formative assessments are intended to “check in” with students, and serve the primary purpose of informing instruction.  Some great examples of this include reading-checks, posing questions to students in order to check for understanding, and using students’ performance on the “warm up” to drive the specific kinds of instruction that immediately follows.  

Because of the purpose that it serves, formative assessment usually has lower stakes (not graded, or scored for a minor grade), occurs continuously throughout every class period, and is considered a “process” rather than a “thing.”

When looking for differences between formative vs summative assessments, we should consider common examples of summative assessments.  Common summative assessment examples include final exams, standardized tests, and unit tests. Like formative assessments, these assessments purposefully check for student understanding, but by nature, they aren’t designed to help the teacher adjust their instruction.  Rather, they’re designed to determine whether a student has met a standard or learning requirement at the completion of a unit or course.

But is the relationship between formative vs summative assessment that clear-cut?  No, of course it isn’t.

What if you use a collection of formative assessments (reading checks or journal entries) to determine a student’s final grade in that topic?  

What if you count a unit test as a major grade, but simultaneously allow students to retake the test after studying the topics they performed poorest in?

What if the standardized test that students take provides immediate reports that can be utilized to adjust instruction the following week?

The point is, the idea of “formative vs summative assessment” is a misnomer.  These assessment types don’t oppose each other, and they aren’t opposites. Rather, they serve different purposes, and often times, assessments overlap both assessment types.


Formative vs Summative Assessment: Which Is Better?

Formative vs Summative Assessment: What's the Difference?As with most things, the question of which is better comes down to purpose.  It helps to keep in mind that the relationship between these to assessment types (formative vs summative assessment) is less about which is “better,” and more about which is appropriate for the current situation or purpose.

In reality, we spend the bulk of our time trying to improve student learning outcomes.  As such, the principles of formative assessment are most often the most applicable for our needs.  And, as such, this means that we are always assessing our students.  Always! We’re honing in on the way they answer questions (was that a hesitation?), the timeliness of their work (wow, she nailed that quiz with plenty of time to spare!), and the quality of their thought (he just doesn’t seem to be getting it) across every interaction that occurs in our classroom.  And, to make good on what formative assessment offers, we act on those assessments and adjust instruction accordingly.

Conversely, we don’t spend nearly as much time crowning students as having “officially passed.”  Because these events are typically more formal and less frequent (e.g. midterms, finals, state tests), they can get a bad rap.  But summative assessments serve an important purpose too — even if it isn’t strictly about enhancing learning for the individual student taking that exam.  (That purpose often pertains to determining whether state standards have been met, determining whether a diploma can be awarded, determining whether a school or a district is effectively doing its job, determining whether a student meets the criteria to be admitted into a specific program or institution, and so on.)  Summative assessment is less warm and fuzzy, but it serves a real world purpose that we would be naive to ignore.


Formative vs Summative Assessment: How to Keep Them Straight

A few good metaphors can really help to clarify formative vs summative assessment for us — and, can help you to keep both types of assessment straight for years to come.

Formative vs Summative Assessment Metaphor #1: The Chef.  Consider a chef in the kitchen of his restaurant, preparing a soup.  He tastes the soup, and determines that it needs a pinch of salt. He stirs in the salt, then tastes it again.  Better, but it’s missing some pepper. He adds two twists from the peppermill, tastes it again, and then adds two more twists.  This process is formative assessment.  Then, the chef ladles his soup into a bowl and it’s served to a guest sitting at a table.  Now, it’s summative.  

Formative vs Summative Assessment Metaphor #2: The Race.  A track coach is helping one of her athletes to prepare for a one-mile race.  She times the athlete’s mile-run at practice, and notices that the runner is coming up slowest in the final stretch.  She asks the athlete to practice several exercises to strengthen her endurance — and, a week later, times the athlete’s mile-run again.  This time, the coach also notices that although the athlete’s time is faster, the athlete appears to be shorter of breath. The coach adds several breathing exercises to the athlete’s training regimen, and the following week, times the mile-run again.  This process is formative assessment.  Then, the coach wishes the athlete luck on race-day.  Now, it’s summative.

It’s easy to imagine the perils of a chef that never tastes the soup he serves his guests… and of a coach that doesn’t account for an athletes’ practice.  Likewise, it’s also easy to imagine how pointless a chef’s job might feel if the soup were never served… and, similarly for a coach or an athlete if there was no race-day to prepare for.  Formative vs summative assessment have a complementary, yin-and-yang relationship, that we must fully consider as we leverage both to enhance instruction for our kiddos.  And let’s not forget about the wide range of possibilities we must consider in terms of differentiating those assessments.  (Consider checking out Assessment and Student Success in a Differentiated Classroom for more on that.)

If you’re looking to take a much deeper dive, we’ve developed an AWESOME online course that promises to bring you to the “cutting edge” with regard to student engagement and pedagogy.  Our course, Modern Mastery PD, hones in on student centered learning, the neuroscience of student engagement and motivation, gamification and game-based learning, gold standard educational technology integration, and more.  You can learn more here, or enter your email address below for more information and special offers!

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