Formative And Summative Assessment: The Differences Explained

The assessment landscape in schools is often confusing and ever-changing. With the debate between the merits of formative vs summative assessments raging on, it can be difficult to know when to use either of these assessment types in your classroom. That’s why, in this article, we will discuss when you should use either type of assessment and explain why.

Formative vs summative assessments – what is the difference?

simple explanation of formative and summative assessments

When teachers discuss assessment, they often refer to two types – ‘formative’ and ‘summative’, however the distinctions and lines between the two types of assessment can often be blurred and misunderstood.

This article will compare and contrast formative and summative assessments to give you a true view of the difference between both types.

What is formative assessment?

Formative assessment is the use of day-to-day assessments to gauge and explore students’ understanding of a topic.

It is best thought of as an assessment for learning. 

Formative assessments are what we carry out to help inform the learning ‘in the moment’. Formative assessment is continuous, informal and should have a central and pivotal role in every math 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 learners’ progress.

Having an assessment with low stakes allows students 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 assessments take place after students’ have completed a block of work, whether that be at the end of a unit or at the end of a quarter. They are a more formal way to sum up student 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.

If formative assessment has been continually carried out, then the results of summative assessment shouldn’t yield any surprises.

Some common examples of summative assessment include:

  • Tests
  • Reports
  • Papers
  • Final projects

Formative and summative assessments should be adaptable

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 students at the end of the lesson to check student understanding) or summative (perhaps as an end of an instructional unit test or check).

It is important that in all subjects, but especially in math, that 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.

venn diagram showing the difference and similarities of formative and summative assessments
A simple way to compare and contrast between formative and summative assessment.

Formative assessment – Constantly assessing ‘in the moment’.

Formative assessment is an intrinsic part of both teaching and student 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 student to plan together what the next stage of their progression will be and future learning goals.

How to bring formative assessments into your classroom

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

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

In the moment, assessment can take many forms:

• You could use a question from your shared learning to assess where you need to give independent work, or which students need further support

• It could be as simple as asking key questions to students during their independent work 

• You could use ‘exit tickets’ to assess children’s understanding at the end of a lesson

However, it is important that this ‘in the moment’ assessment that is carried out has a purpose, and that this information is used to adapt the learning experiences and opportunities that you are providing to each child.

The information obtained from formative assessments can help you understand the student’s learning processes and adapt to this in future lesson plans.

If your assessment shows that students are secure, then how are you going to deepen their learning?

If your assessment shows that students have some misconceptions, then how are you going to support these?

These are just two of the questions you should be asking yourself throughout a formative assessment.

If you are looking for a way to bring formative assessments into your classroom, take a look at our blog containing your Math Intervention Must-Have: Formative Diagnostic Assessment Tests.

Formative assessment ideas for your class

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

Common types of formative assessment include:

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

Ensure each formative assessment routine has a purpose

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

For example, if you are going to do the ‘math 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 students. 

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

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 assessment that you can ensure that each student is supported and challenged, and that every student is learning rather than constantly rehearsing what they already know.

Don’t leave any potholes – why formative assessment is important

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 math. 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.

It is therefore important that we use our constant, ‘in the moment’ assessment to help ensure that no new gaps are being allowed to form in a student’s mathematical understanding and learning.

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 math lesson, you formatively check that all students 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?

4 things you must remember regarding summative assessment

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

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

1- Assessment systems vs framework – What are you assessing against?

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

It is this need that means that schools also need to consider the assessment framework they are using- i.e. what you are assessing against. This decision is often one that is taken at district level.    

However, it is important that you are clear about the difference between your assessment system and the framework you are using. 

Often with my work in schools, I am told that they are using ‘student asset’, ‘classroom monitor’, ‘target tracker’ (and many others) as their assessment. In fact, these are all assessment systems – bits of software that allow you to record and track student’s progress against a framework that has been chosen by your school. 

They are not what you are using to ‘assess’- 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 students – and it is these frameworks that are vitally important.

2- Balancing the frameworks is crucial

When choosing, or creating, the assessment framework that you are using, it’s important to consider the balance of objectives and target areas of mathematics within the framework.

Some end-of-grade tests may give a higher weight towards number based objectives, with number, calculations and proportionality making up between 75-85% of a child’s final result. 

Yet, most grades have an even split between all standard domains.

This essentially means that a child could be legitimately marked as ‘secure’ or ‘working at aged related expectations’ against the whole curriculum, on the basis of their strength in geometry, but they wouldn’t be classed as ‘secure’ or ‘working at aged related expectations’ in a standardized test.

It is therefore important that whatever framework you use is balanced, and includes an equal weighting of standards-based questions.

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

• Use built-in ‘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.

3- Teacher assessment plays a huge role in summative assessment

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, midway through the school year or end-of-grade tests. 

This often leads to ‘assessment panic’ with teachers feeling overwhelmed having to create the assessment against many objectives for all students 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 judgment at the end of a quarter/year. 

Due to the stress of having to meet a deadline and make a judgment against each objective for all students 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

However, these frameworks can also be used in a more formative way – with teachers being encouraged to record the learning progress towards objectives on the framework or rubric 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 finalized in time for whatever deadline of ‘snapshot’ date your school set.

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

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

4- Testing can’t be forgotten about either

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 judgments, and can also help to ensure there are no ‘nasty’ surprises when it comes to state standardized tests.

However, testing is only as good as the quality of the tests that you use. It is important that the tests your schools rely on have the same degree of ‘standardization’.

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

Some popular tests that have been developed in this way include STAR Math and Terra Nova.

Regardless of what tests are used, it is also important that schools and teachers 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 it is important that these tests are 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 students strengths and weaknesses can prove invaluable in helping them to progress.

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

The goal of this blog was to summarize 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!

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The content in this article was originally written by math consultant and author Tim Handley and has since been revised and adapted for US schools by elementary math teacher Katie Keeton.

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