Formative And Summative Assessment: The Differences Explained For Teachers

In this article we un-pick the differences between formative and summative assessment, when and why you should use each type of assessment, and how to get the best out of each to keep driving forward students’ learning.

Let’s start with a brief overview and then drill down for greater nuance

Formative vs summative assessments – what is the difference?

Formative assessments are low stakes tests designed to identify where students are in their current understanding and inform teachers about what the next teaching steps should be. Summative assessments tend to be higher stakes and used at the end of a unit to evaluate student learning against a standard or benchmark.

Formative vs Summative Assessment Differences


What is formative assessment?

Formative assessment is the use of day-to-day assessments to gauge and explore pupils’ understanding of a topic. They determine student needs, which teachers use to form learning outcomes in order to prioritise student achievement and success.

It is best thought of as an assessment for learning

Formative assessments are one of the teaching strategies used to help inform the learning ‘in the moment’. Formative assessment is continuous, informal and should have a central and pivotal role in every maths classroom.

If used correctly, it will have a high impact on current learning and help you guide your instruction and teaching by giving ongoing feedback on students’ progress.

Having an assessment with low stakes allows pupils to develop their skills, confidence and user experience before attempting a summative assessment with high stakes. It also makes room for self-assessment.

What is summative assessment?

Summative assessment takes place after pupils’ have completed a block of work, whether that be on a term or modular basis. They are a more formal way to sum up pupil progress and are often compared against a standard benchmark.

They are best thought of as assessments of learning.

There are different types of summative evaluations that we carry out ‘after the event’, often periodic (rather than continuous), and they are often measured against a set standard.

Summative assessment can be thought of as helping to validate and ‘check’ formative assessment – it is a periodic measure of how children are, overall, progressing in their mathematics learning.

A breakdown of the differences between formative and summative assessments

Formative and summative assessments differ in the following ways:

  • Difference 1: Purpose: the purpose of formative assessments is to improve learning, while the purpose of summative assessments is to gain a measure of attainment (e.g. a final grade).  
  • Difference 2: Frequency: formative assessment occurs regularly throughout every lesson.  Summative assessments occur at the end of a teaching-learning cycle or at the end of class.
  • Difference 3: Type of Assessment: formative assessments are likely to be low-stakes and summative assessments are likely to be high-stakes.
  • Difference 4: Outcome: teachers provide feedback to improve learning following formative assessments.  The outcome of a summative assessment is a final grade or score that is used as a measure of attainment.

Importantly, it is not the ‘form’ that assessment takes that determines whether it is formative or summative, instead it is how it is being used.

For example, ‘test style questions’ can be used both as formative assessment (perhaps as exit tickets – questions given to children at the end of the lesson to check understanding) or summative (perhaps as an end of an instructional unit test or check).

In all subjects, but especially in maths, we use a combination of both assessment strategies, but that formative assessment, due to its constant nature, makes up the bulk of our assessment activities.

Formative vs summative assessment comparison chart

This Venn diagram shows the difference and similarities between the two assessment types very clearly.

The Differences Between Formative Vs Summative Assessment: Comparison Chart
A simple way to compare and contrast between formative and summative assessment.
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Formative Assessment - Set of 4 Diagnostic Quizzes for Year 6

25 multiple choice questions per quiz on Number and Place Value, Addition and Subtraction, Multiplication and Division, Fractions, Decimals and Percentages.

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Formative assessment: what you need to know

Formative assessment is an intrinsic part of both teaching and pupil progression. This form of assessment does not rely upon tests and results, but rather the ability to adapt to classroom blockers as they arise. 

It should indicate what a good piece of work is and why this is the case, but it also gives you as a teacher a chance to see when things are not going so well and act upon it and see improvements. 

Good formative feedback will enable both the teacher and pupil to plan together what the next stage of their progression will be and future learning goals.

How to use formative assessments in your lessons

During a lesson, all adults in the classroom should be on a ‘constant assessment mission’ through interactions with pupils. 

Teachers should be moving around the room, interacting with each child, and assessing their progress towards the learning objective.

In the moment assessment can take many forms:

  • You could use a question from your shared learning to assess where you need to pitch independent work, or which pupils need further support
  • Perhaps you are using a hinge question in a class discussion to assess where you need to pitch the independent work or group work, or which children require further support.
  • You could be use ‘exit tickets’ to assess children’s understanding at the end of a lesson

Any ‘in the moment’ assessment that is carried out should have a purpose, and then the information obtained from formative assessments can help you understand the children’s learning processes and adapt to this in future lesson plans.

Ask yourself:

  • If your assessment shows that children are secure, then how are you going to deepen their learning?
  • If your assessment shows that children have some misconceptions, then how are you going to support these?

Formative assessment examples and ideas

There are a lot of different assessment routines you can use to keep up with the progression of your maths class.

Common examples of formative assessment include:

  • Group activities
  • Quizzes
  • Games
  • Class projects
  • Presentations

Read more: Formative assessment examples

Practical tips for implementing formative assessment

1. Ensure every formative assessment routine has a purpose

Make sure that your assessment ‘routines’ have a purpose and use. 

For example, if you are going to do the ‘maths lesson classic’ and ask children to show you an answer on a mini-whiteboard, make sure you are actually looking at the answers given by all children. 

You should then be using these to inform the next step in your lesson and the learning for each child.

I have observed many lessons where teachers have carried out the mini-whiteboard ‘routine’, not actually looked at the responses given, and carried on with what they had planned regardless. 

Remember – it is not the activity or ‘thing’ that you do that represents effective assessment, but what you do with the information you gather from it. 

It is through effective, in lesson, formative evaluation that you can ensure that each child is supported and challenged, and that every child is learning rather than constantly rehearsing what they already know.

Read more: Adaptive teaching

2. Address the learning gaps and don’t leave potholes

I often use a ‘pothole’ analogy with the schools I work with. Imagine a local council were filling in potholes but that their road maintenance vehicles were themselves creating new holes in the road.

They wouldn’t be doing a very good job at improving the overall quality of the road surface would they?

Yet, schools often inadvertently do the same with maths. They are often very good at carrying out a plethora of intervention activities to fill gaps (or potholes) that have been ‘left’ from previous years, but, at the same time, often allow new gaps (or potholes) to be created.

Make sure that you use your ‘in the moment’ and ‘end of lesson’ assessment to help fill any new gaps that are starting to emerge. Then, at the end of the maths lesson, you formatively check that all children are secure with the objective for that lesson, and if not, you carry out some form of intervention to help address these gaps.

If you are not going to address the gaps now, then who is and when?

Read more: Same day interventions

3. Understand diagnostic assessment and how it works

Probably the most effective type of formative assessment is a multiple choice diagnostic assessment. This is when you set up your formative assessment in a deliberate way to diagnose the precise learning gaps and misconceptions that each of your students may have.

Each carefully selected incorrect option for your multiple choice answers can highlight a particular maths misconception. This design ensures that students can answer correctly only if they have a clear understanding of the topic, free from any misconceptions.

This format is not only beneficial for student understanding but also efficient for teachers. The distinct set of answers allows for quick marking, enabling students to receive immediate feedback.

The questions can be answered swiftly, typically within ten seconds, allowing their frequent use in lessons without impinging on valuable learning time. Regular use of diagnostic assessments fosters reflective learning among students, encouraging them to identify areas needing further study and revision.

Download a free diagnostic maths test (available for primary and secondary) to get you started.

Summative assessment: what you need to know

Summative assessment examples and ideas

Summative assessment helps to demonstrate the extent of pupils success in meeting specific goals. It is a method than can be used to quantify student performance and achievement, and due to its data driven nature, it is a great way to provide a numerical basis for the student’s next step.

Some common examples of summative assessment include:

  • Tests
  • Reports
  • Papers
  • End of term projects

Practical tips for implementing summative assessment

However, whilst the principles of summative assessment are simple, there are 4 key points you need to consider before implementing it.

1. Understand the difference between your assessment framework and your assessment system

Despite the power of ‘in the moment’ formative assessment, schools do need a way to track the attainment and progress of children throughout the school. 

This means schools also need to consider the assessment framework or rubric being used i.e. what you are assessing against. This decision is often one that is taken at school (or trust) level.    

At this point you need to be clear about the different between your assessment system and the framework you are using. 

Often in working with schools we hear that they are usingClassroom Monitor, Target Tracker or School Insights for their assessment. In fact, these are all just assessment systems – a bit of software that allow you to record and track children’s progress against the assessment framework that has been chosen by your school. 

They are not what you are using to ‘assess’ but merely what you are using to record your assessment.   

These assessment systems all allow you to select (and often create your own) framework upon which to assess your children – and it is these frameworks that are vitally important.

2. Consider the balance of objectives and targets in your assessment framework

When choosing, or indeed creating, the assessment framework that you are using, look closely at how you’re balancing the objectives and target areas of mathematics within the framework.

For example, a common occurrence is that schools assess against each objective of the national curriculum. This, however, is problematic and often creates unwelcome ‘surprises’ when it comes to comparing teacher assessment against standardised summative assessment. 

An example of this is SATs tests – I have been asked to work with many schools where their assessment against the whole national curriculum does not match the performance of children on previous SATs papers.

The reason for this disparity between teacher assessment against the whole national curriculum ie. assessing against every statement of the Year 4 Maths national curriculum and performance on standardised test, is that the whole national curriculum is not weighted in the same way as the KS1 and KS2 end of key stage assessment (SATs) are.

Read more: Why your SATs interventions should not start in Year 6

At primary The KS1 and KS2 test frameworks show a clear weighting towards number based objectives.

Number, calculations and proportionality making up between 75-85% of a child’s final result (this is for a good reason – but that’s the subject of another blog post!)

Yet, most year groups have around a 50/50 split between ‘number’ objectives – i.e. number, calculations and proportionality  and ‘non-number’ objectives- i.e.- shape, space, measures and statistics.

This essentially means that a child could be legitimately marked as ‘secure’ or ‘working at aged related expectations’ against the whole national curriculum, on the basis of their strength in shape, space, measures and statistics, whereas they wouldn’t be classed as ‘secure’ or ‘working at aged related expectations’ in a standardised test.

It is therefore important that whatever framework you use is balanced, and represents the weighting of objectives in the Test Frameworks.

There are many ways in which you can do this, including: 

  • Use in-built ‘weighting’ functions of some assessment systems that allow you to weight each objective. 
  • Assess against key objectives only, which overall, have the balance of number vs non-number objectives.
  • Group objectives together, creating the overall numbers vs non-number balance. 
  • Use a commercially available assessment framework which has the weighting work done for you.

Top 20 maths revision topics for KS2 SATS

Third Space Learning have undertaken a detailed analysis of past papers to determine the topics that appear most often on the Standardised Assessment Tests (SATs) at the end of year 6 as well as the numbers of marks allocated to these topics. This list informs the order of lessons we teach on our one to one SATs revision programme which every year supports thousands of children to achieve their best outcomes in SATs.

We recommend you use it to create your own year 6 maths revision programme too.

List of top 20 SATs topics

Focused maths revision for GCSE

At secondary school the GCSE exam board frameworks mirror the weighting at primary school towards number. However with many more strands to test the marks in final exams are more fairly divided across algebra, geometry and ratio and proportion. Only probability and statistics tend to be regularly responsible for fewer marks across the 3 GCSE maths papers.

If you’re interested in digging into the detail on the maths topics assessed at GCSE, these articles provide excellent expert analysis:

3. Train your teachers how to use the assessment framework

Once your school has decided on a framework to use for assessment, next comes the question of how it is actually used. 

These frameworks can be used both in a purely ‘summative’ way, or in a formative way that leads to, over time, an accurate summative assessment. 

The traditional use of these frameworks is for schools to ask for each child to be assessed against the framework at set points – for example through termly or midterm exams. 

This often leads to ‘assessment panic’ with teachers feeling overwhelmed having to create the assessment against many objectives for all children in their task in a short period of time.

If this is the only way in which these frameworks are used, then these are being used purely summatively – it is the teacher’s judgement at the end of a term/half term. 

Due to the stress of having to meet a deadline and make a judgment against each objective for all children in your class, this can often mean that these summative only teacher assessments are not as accurate as many would like.

Luckily, you can adapt these assessments very easily

How to use the frameworks formatively as well as summatively.

These frameworks can also be used in a more formative way- with teachers being encouraged to record the progress towards objectives on the framework as they are being taught.

An example of this is recording and amending judgements each week as a result of the ‘ongoing’ assessment. This leads to an ever changing snapshot of each child’s performance, which can be really powerful.

This can be used to inform interventions and subsequent teaching, and help to identify common misconceptions, giving the assessment framework used by your school both a summative and formative use. 

These assessments can then just be finalised in time for whatever deadline of ‘snapshot’ date your school set.

It is fantastic that many schools are favouring teacher assessment to provide this ‘data’. 

Teacher assessment is incredibly powerful, and gives teachers the professional autonomy that they deserve. 

4. Regular standardised tests can be used with your assessment framework

Many schools will also choose to use some form of testing alongside their assessment frameworks.

This can be seen as helping to validate teacher assessment judgements, and can also help to ensure there are no ‘nasty’ surprises when it comes to Year 6.

However, testing is only as good as the quality of the tests that you use. As we know, the development of SATs tests takes 3 years. They are also, as we all know, standardised – leading to the infamous ‘scaled score’.

Make sure that the tests your schools rely on also have the same degree of work that has gone into their development.

They should be standardised – so you know how children across the country perform, and be based on a clear test development framework, and have been trialled and refined in schools. 

Some popular tests that have been developed in this way include PUMA (by Hodder/Rising Stars Assessment), NfER tests and GL Assessments.

In a test by Rising Stars using PUMA assessment data, pupils who received one to one maths tuition from Third Space Learning made double the expect progress over 14 weeks.

Regardless of what tests are used, schools and teachers will understand that they provide a snapshot of the performance on the day the test was taken. Children, just like adults, all have ‘good’ and ‘bad’ days, and these tests should be seen as a supplement to good quality teacher assessment, not a replacement for it.

Formative vs summative assessments – the pros and cons

Both formative and summative assessment have a very important role to play in the classroom and in schools. However, it is very important to ensure that you find the right balance between the two approaches for your own class’s learning needs.

Constant formative assessment can prove difficult if not implemented properly, but consistent assessment of pupils strengths and weaknesses can prove invaluable in helping them to progress.

Summative assessment can often not show the whole picture of a pupils progression, but it is a fantastic way of getting a data driven overview of how a pupil has progressed and grown over a period of time.  

The goal of this article was to summarise the difference between formative and summative assessment, and the conclusion is that both approaches have their flaws, but they can also both provide a valuable insight into how a class is getting on throughout the school year. All that is left is to use assessments of both kinds to inform your teaching!

Read more:

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Since 2013 these personalised one to one lessons have helped over 150,000 primary and secondary students become more confident, able mathematicians.


Learn about the diagnostic assessment or request a personalised quote for your school to speak to us about your school’s needs and how we can help.


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