Formative vs. Summative Assessment: What’s the Difference?

Tracy Bruno
Tracy Bruno
Middle School Principal; M.Ed. in Administration and Supervision
Drawing of the word ‘assessment’ surrounded by icons.

What is Formative Assessment?

Formative assessment is a method used by teachers to evaluate comprehension, learning needs, and academic progress of students during a lesson, unit, or course. There are many forms of formative assessment. For example, you are at the end of class and you have implemented the Gradual Release Model. Students are in the “You Do” phase of the model. How do you know the level of understanding for your class? Should you simply move on the next day and hope that the students were on the right track? Of course not. You could give a short (3-5 question) exit slip that students turn in on their way out. You then use the results of that exit ticket to drive the next day’s instruction. Can you move on, or do you need to re-teach the concept to some or all of the class? Exit slips are just one example of a good use of formative assessment.

Cooperative learning structures are another great way to check for understanding and to take the pulse of the classroom. We have all seen the typical whole class Q-and-A, right? A teacher stands in front of the class and asks a general question. A smattering of students raises their hands. One student is chosen, gives an answer, and the class moves on. That teacher has a 1-out-of-30 sample size.

Take that same scenario but pose the question to the class, give students think time, and ask them to share their answers with a partner. Each partner gets a specific amount of time to share. As students are discussing the answer with one another, the teacher walks around the classroom, listening for comprehension. You now have a 30-out-of-30 sample size! I would much rather base my instruction on the second scenario.

A growing form of formative assessment is the use of online platforms such as Padlet and Pear Deck. These virtual galleries are a great way for teachers to pose a problem or scenario and ask students to submit their solutions. Teachers can display the platform in the classroom and student answers will pop up in real time. Answers can be identified with student names or anonymous. This real-time data can really help a teacher visually grasp the level of understanding their students have for a specific concept.

What is Summative Assessment?

Summative assessments are used to gauge understanding or mastery at the end of a unit/concept/standard. Summative assessments are typically longer and more intricate than formative assessments. The idea is that after a summative assessment, the class will move on to another unit.

Summative assessments, much like formative assessments, can come in many forms. The traditional summative assessment could be a unit test that is a mix of multiple choice, fill-in-the-blank, short answer, and essay questions. These types of summative assessments are given quite often by educators because they are similar to many state standardized tests students take at the end of the school year.

But let’s consider some other forms of summative assessments that might take into account different learning styles. Project-based learning has become very popular over the past decade. Many times students see their school day as six or seven different events. Once students attend, say, math class, they really do not consider math for the rest of the day. Students fail to see the connection between their classes. Project-based learning is an instructional methodology that leads students to solve real world problems (therefore relatable to their lives) by learning and applying knowledge and skills through an engaging project and is typically cross-curricular.

For example: students might need to figure out how to solve the problem of “food deserts” that exist in many areas of the country. They may use science and math to figure out how to grow urban gardens. They may use language arts to write up articles or recipes for families to use in order to eat healthier. They may use social studies in order to research the effectiveness of different community gardens in the United States over the last 20 years. Finally they may use what they learn in physical education to pair certain heart healthy exercises with the new recipes in order to combat obesity. Project-based learning is a great summative assessment because it allows students and teachers to work collaboratively to solve real world problems while simultaneously assessing mastery of standards.

Think about using technology in order to summatively assess a standard. Students may use technology to create a music video for their chorus class. The video may contain a song they created. Students may also use technology at the end of a social studies unit in order to interview veterans from the Vietnam War as part of a Google Slide presentation they make to the class and/or community. Students in STEM classes use 3D printers in order to bring to life models/concepts they create to solve real world problems.

Another example of summative assessment is harnessing the power of student choice and creativity  to assess mastery. Many teachers are creating menu or choice boards for students at the end of a unit. The menu or choice board has a variety of different activities that helps the teacher assess mastery. Teachers will often assign one or two activities and then allow students to choose a few more in order to give students some ownership in their learning. Examples could include allowing a student to write a poem or an essay over a topic.

How to Use Formative and Summative Assessment

So at the end of the day, how do we use formative and summative assessment? When planning a unit, start with the standard(s) you want to assess for mastery. Build a summative assessment first. This way you plan with the end in mind. The summative should be a comprehensive view of the standard. Whatever means you choose for a summative assessment (traditional, project-based, student choice), be sure you are assessing the entire standard. As the class moves through the unit, use the smaller formative assessments to gauge understanding. Use these small checks to drive and adjust your instruction as you move through a unit.

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