What Is Summative Assessment: A Practical Guide For Teachers On When And How To Use It

Are you looking to design a summative assessment that accurately measures your students’ learning progress? It may seem like creating a test is a straightforward task – just jot down some questions and select the answers. But if you aspire to create assessments that genuinely reflect your learners’ abilities and enhance their academic achievements, you need to adopt a considered approach embedding summative assessments into your teaching plans from the start 

In this article, we’ll delve into the benefits and limitations of summative assessments on student achievement and provide recommendations for teachers to improve the effectiveness of summative assessments for their learners.

What is summative assessment?

Summative assessment is an evaluation of students’ current understanding and achievement. It allows teachers to track learners’ progress over a period of time. It is done at the end of teaching unit or several teaching units and can be benchmarked or standardised against other students’ work.

The findings of these assessments can be used to make informed decisions about how to support each student in succeeding and determine whether they have achieved the required learning objectives or content domains. 

Examples of summative assessment

Summative assessments can take many forms, including in class tests, exams, projects, or essays, and are often scored to provide a quantifiable measure of students’ performance.

It’s worth saying that in fact there’s nothing intrinsic to an assessment activity that makes it either summative or formative – it’s what you do with the information that you gain from the assessment that determines this.

That said, there are some assessement types that are more commonly used summatively. These include:

  • Benchmark tests given at the start of the year or a unit of work with the intention of comparing the results with future assessment data.
  • Online assessments designed to measure transferable skills and academic aptitude to make predictions and targets for future attainment.
  • Portfolios of work, for subjects such as Art or Photography.
  • A final project following a period of group work.
  • Midterm exams or classroom assessments at the end of a unit of study.
  • Performance assessments that showcase students’ development of new skills.
  • Key stage assessments that form part of a national curriculum.
  • Standardised tests that are sat by students of the same age throughout a country, such as GCSEs and SATs
Third Space Learning SATs lesson
At Third Space Learning, we have a SATs programme designed to give Year 6 pupils exposure to SATs-style questions and equip them with the skills they’ll need to tackle them.

Formative vs summative assessments

The difference between formative and summative assessment is their purpose, design, frequency, and outcomes. While summative assessment is an assessment of learning, formative assessment is an assessment for learning.

Read more: Formative assessment examples

Formative and summative assessments are the two types of assessment that are most prevalent in education literature. The table below shows their main characteristics:

Formative and Summative Assessment

Benefits of summative assessment practices 

The benefits of summative assessment may not be as apparent as those of formative assessment, as they are often less immediate and direct than the advantages gained from ongoing assessment strategies that promote learning.

But summative assessments bring many benefits that enhance teaching and learning.

Tracking student progress

Summative assessments offer assessment data that is typically used to track student progress over time. This data indicates whether students are making the expected level of progress based on their age and abilities.


The results of summative assessments provide an objective measure of accountability for teachers and students. 

Teachers can use students’ end-of-year or external assessment results in their appraisal meetings to evaluate their teaching approaches. Additionally, students can be held accountable if their results indicate a decrease in effort or underperformance in one or more subjects.

Motivating students 

Summative assessments provide high-stakes conditions for students to showcase their capabilities to themselves and others. These assessments motivate students to prepare and revise more thoroughly than they might for other types of evaluations. 

However, lower ability students and those with exam anxiety may be less motivated by summative assessments, which can lead to a decrease in their effort and motivation as the assessment date approaches.

Preparation for external exams

GCSEs and A-Levels are external exams that act as summative assessments at the end of a course. High stakes classroom assessments, such as midterm exams, offer valuable exam practice for time management, meeting assessment objectives, and managing exam anxiety. 

Summative assessments will require students retrieving information from their long term memory which can help to further embed it and support improved performance during external exams.


Summative assessments can provide schools and education systems with objective data to create standardised scores for each learner. This enables individuals and small cohorts to be compared to other students and larger cohorts. 

Standardisation is often used to determine the grade boundaries in external exams.

How can summative assessment impact student achievement?

The manner in which summative assessment is carried out can have a considerable impact on the academic progress of students.

Summative assessment helps:

  • track student progress and identify underachievement, allowing for interventions to be put in place.
  • reveal issues with exam technique.
  • hold students and teachers accountable and increase motivation to improve results.
  • prepare students for external exams, improving long-term memory retrieval and adjusting revision and exam strategies accordingly.

Read more: Adaptive teaching

In all cases above, increased achievement is defined as achieving a higher result in a future summative assessment. 

This may not be a reliable or valid measure of achievement, but until education institutions move away from standardised testing and entry requirements that depend on the results of summative assessments, it is an important measure to consider.

Limitations of summative assessment

Summative assessments are widely used in education to measure student achievement, but they also have limitations every teacher should be aware of:

Provides a limited snapshot of student achievement

Summative assessment is limited in that it provides a snapshot of student achievement at one point in time and uses a limited range of assessment strategies.

The validity and appropriateness of summative assessments, particularly external exams, has been scrutinised in the UK after ‘teacher assessed grades’ were used to replace external exams during periods of lockdown.

Closed-book exams may not accurately reflect students’ ability or potential

There is uncertainty about whether closed-book exams that are taken at the end of GCSE and A-Level courses provide an accurate reflection of students’ ability or academic potential.

Students can be coached to perform well on summative assessments, which takes time away from deepening students’ understanding or studying a broader curriculum.

Critics of summative assessment argue that ‘open-book’ assessments would be more appropriate so that students can be tested on their ability to apply and fact-check the material they have access to.

Comparing students based on summative grades might be unfair

Using summative grades to compare students to each other or to gain entry into a school, college, or university, seems unfair when final grades are so dependent on factors outside of students’ control.

Summative assessments can emphasise memorization

Summative assessments often require students to memorise material, which is becoming an increasingly redundant skill given how readily information is available online.

Time spent memorising material ahead of a summative assessment could be better spent deepening students’ understanding or improving their ability to critically interact with new material.

Summative assessment tips for teachers

As a teacher, designing and administering effective summative assessments can be challenging. Here are some tips to help you create successful summative assessments for your students.

1. Design a summative assessment based on its purpose

The content of a summative assessment needs to be carefully selected – and this content may vary depending on the intended use of the assessment data.

Let’s consider short formal tests administered at the end of a unit of work or half-term which is based only on the work completed during that time period. Benefits of tests like these include:

  • Increased motivation for students to revise and consolidate learned content
  • An increase in student achievement due to the testing effect
  • Support for process of identifying students who may benefit from intervention (note that summative test results should not be the only method for identifying these students, as discussed above)
  • Provision of feedback on the effectiveness of curriculum design and implementation (the extent to which learning intentions match with learning accomplished)

However, while this type of short formal test has lots of benefits, it is not as useful for providing a longer-term picture of student progress and to measure attainment of more generalised learning goals.

For example, it is unlikely to be appropriate to convert the data collected from an isolated end of unit assessment to a GCSE grade to report to parents as part of a school’s wider monitoring processes. This is because it’s highly likely that different content domains are assessed with each separate unit test, and fluctuations in results may reflect the comparative difficulty of the material covered rather than any meaningful change in a student’s progress.

2. Offer clear instructions throughout the assessment

Ensure the instructions throughout the assessment clearly convey what is required from the student (e.g. show each step of your calculation).

Create a mark scheme or rubric before the assessment is set so that you are clear about what is required from each question and check that the exam instructions accurately explain this to the students. 

3. Ensure consistency in summative assessments from year to year

On the one hand it’s a good idea to use the same summative assessments each year so that each cohort of students can be compared to cohorts from previous years.

This allows departments to evaluate their own performance and to make adjustments if a cohort’s performance differs significantly from previous years. By including a mixture of recent and past topics on each summative assessment you will utilise the benefits of retrieval practice and spacing.

On the other hand, regular reviews of how you are assessing content throughout the year will help to make sure you meet the needs of each particular cohort of students.

Read more: Retrieval practice activities

4. Prepare students in advance

Prepare students for summative assessments and reduce exam anxiety by producing practice papers that match the summative assessment in terms of style and content. 

Each spring, we teach booster maths lessons to approximately 10,000 Year 6 pupils across the UK every week as part of our Year 6 SATs revision programme.

Each child receives targeted one-to-one maths tuition from a dedicated KS2 SATs tutor who is trained in teaching them how to answer SATs reasoning questions, while also plugging any gaps and misconceptions in maths. This builds their confidence in the style and content of their SATs exams.

What is summative assessment and why is it important?

Summative assessment is designed to produce a measure of achievement. It is important because it helps teachers to track their students’ progress and gives students an opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge to external organisations such as employers or universities.

What makes a good summative assessment?

An assessment that has a clear purpose and allows comparisons to be made with the results or past or future assessments.

What are three examples of summative assessment?

External exams like Year 6 SATs, GCSEs or A-Levels
End of year or end of topic exams
Benchmark or aptitude tests that measure transferable skills and academic potential

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