Re-evaluating the place for summative assessment in the classroom

|5 min read

Editor’s Note:

This is an updated version of a blog post originally published on May 14th, 2018

As teachers, we will all often find that the data collected from summative tests is used as a “high-stakes” performance measurement and can contribute to really important decisions being made incorrectly that will affect our children’s futures and our school’s reputation.

This, unfortunately, has resulted in the valuable summative data being demonised as results have been used to “name, shame and blame” (John Hattie – Visible Learning for Teacher, 2012).

However, these tests do have their place in the classrooms and they do fulfil a useful purpose if they are valid, reliable and fair. They can provide transparent results and prove valuable to plan future learning goals.

What is Summative Assessment?

Assessment of Learning through summative testing, is a formal and narrow snapshot in time that lets teachers, children and others know how well each child has completed a test or exam. It is intended to provide evidence of achievement about how well children are learning and is the more formal summing-up of a pupil’s progress. Research suggests that for some students, these summative tests can be motivating.

This means that summative assessment can be used for making comparisons, identifying trends, reporting on performance, tracking progress and target setting and strategic planning. A grade or percentage can indicate a child’s rank in the class, year group or performance compared to others. It can provide our children, parents and teachers valuable information about each child’s overall performance at a specific point in their learning and provides information about their progress in:

  • subject knowledge
  • understanding
  • skills and capabilities

Why should we be wary of Summative Assessment?

Strictly speaking, summative assessment isn’t really assessment – more precisely it is ‘evaluation’ where we can gather information in order to generate a judgment, a score or a level: this is ‘being graded’ and is summative in nature, judgmental and competitive.

We find that evaluative tests are almost always formally graded and often heavily weighted (although they don’t have to be) and give us information that signposts progress and achievement usually in numerical terms. Although the information that is gleaned from testing is important, it can only help in evaluating certain aspects of the learning process.

This often means that summative assessments can happen too far down the learning path to provide information at the classroom level and to make teaching adjustments and interventions during the learning process.

When should we use Summative Assessment?

So, how do we use assessment to make adjustments during the learning process? For this we use formative assessment and although summative assessment and formative assessment therefore appear to be at opposite ends of the spectrum many teachers work hard to achieve a more positive relationship between the two – they aren’t evil cousins! Both are necessary, both are useful and both can actually work together.

Good tests can also be good teaching and learning devices and so reliable summative tests can have a powerful formative use. The key to improving learning is for teachers to share with children their scores and what these grades or numbers mean in terms of what they have demonstrated they can do and what the next steps to improve their learning will be. ‘Summative’ suggests a ‘summary’ of the final results, but there is no rulebook that says it must happen on the last day.

This means that summative assessments can inform us about what children have learnt, what they may be finding difficult and how we need to adjust our teaching to maximise their learning. Therefore, to be genuinely worthwhile, it is helpful to children if summative assessments are also interpreted formatively before moving on. Summative is not synonymous with ‘done’.

Where teachers use summative tests creatively and formatively it can make a valuable contribution to assessment and learning. A test in itself makes no difference unless the information it generates is acted upon. Ultimately, assessment is only valuable if it changes the way teachers teach and children learn. The most important end user of assessment is the child and to really have any real value and impact, teachers realise that summative tests cannot be divorced from formative feedback. All ‘high-stakes’ tests have formative potential.

How to use Summative Assessment correctly

Hodgen and Wiliam in Mathematics Inside The Black Box (2006) highlight some key ways of using summative tests formatively:

  • Give children the mark scheme and ask them to create model ‘full mark’ answers.
  • Ask children to identify easy and hard questions then test their ‘hunches’ to others why they think so.
  • Ask children to work with a partner or group on questions to produce the best composite answers they can.
  • Give pairs of children a test and ask them to produce a more difficult test.

You’ll find that infusing summative tests with formative flavour can pay dividends. We can work more effectively when we link summative assessments together so that children can grow between summative assessments. When we engage in lopsided assessment practice and allow summative assessment to dominate then we naturally get a lopsided view of what children can do!

So, by using a comprehensive assessment approach that balances formative and summative assessment we are provided with more accurate learning/achievement information which brings into focus a much clearer picture of children’s strengths and weaknesses.

Summative assessments have their place in the classroom and they do fulfil a useful purpose if we use them wisely. In the right hands they are full of potential – they are the diamonds in the rough.

Black, P., Harrison, C., Lee, C., Marshall, B., & Wiliam, D. (2003) Assessment for Learning: Putting it into practice. Berkshire, England: Open University Press.
Hattie, J. (2012) Visible Learning for Teacher: Maximising impact on learning. Abingdon: Routledge.

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