Formative vs. Summative Assessment
Experience suggests that you should always check what the person you’re talking with actually means when they say formative and summative assessment. Although — fair warning — the answer can lead to further confusion. The two are often presented as opposite approaches to assessment, and people can vehemently defend one and berate the other. It can also turn out that a summative test format and the formative use of assessment evidence get mixed up.
For the purposes of this blog, let’s agree that formative assessment is assessment that informs future learning, i.e. it’s Assessment for Learning, and answers the question: where are the pupils in their learning and, knowing this, what should be done next in teaching and learning? Formative assessment can take many forms from teacher observations to tests, and contain data in the form of numbers, descriptions, comments, checklists and so on.
Summative assessment sums up what has been learned so far. It asks the question: have the pupils learned or mastered what has been taught? This often brings to mind quizzes and tests and numerical data, but can take many forms depending on methods of assessment. Summative assessment is often seen as a tool for Assessment for Accountability.
But summative assessment information can and should be put to formative use: the findings from an exit paper inform what happens in the next lesson; SATs scores can be used to inform how teaching and learning is carried out the following school year, whether for pupils who took the test or for the new cohort of Y2 or Y6 pupils. Summative assessment can be a robust and useful way of Assessment for Learning — as long as the data is put to work in the classroom.
To distinguish between daily checkpoints and continuous observations, and the more formal objective testing, would it be better to simply talk about assessment of long-term learning and assessment of short-term learning — whatever methods are used and whichever kind of data is produced? In any case, the conversation around formative and summative assessment is sure to continue.
It’s crucial to agree on a common vocabulary and a common approach for your practice and school assessment framework, so that you and your colleagues can start the conversation and can engage in it together.
In the coming months we’ll be talking more about assessment and what it can do for your school. If you’d like to share your assessment tips and opinions, email us at email@example.com, or find us on social. We’d love to hear from you.