Summative and formative assessment are a crucial component of the educational process. If you work in the assessment field, you have probably encountered these terms. What do they mean?
Summative assessment refers to an assessment that is at the end (sum) of an educational experience. The “educational experience” can vary widely. Perhaps it is a one-day training course, or even shorter. I worked at a lumber yard in high school, and I remember getting a rudimentary training – maybe an hour – on how to use a forklift before they had me take an exam to become OSHA Certified to used a forklift. Proctored by the guy who had just showed me the ropes, of course. On the other end of a spectrum is board certification for a physician specialty like ophthalmology: after 4 years of undergrad, 4 years of med school, and several more years of specialty training, then you finally get to take the exam. Either way, the purpose is to evaluate what you learned in some educational experience.
Note that it does not have to be formal education. Many certifications have multiple eligibility pathways. For example, to be eligible to sit for the exam, you might need:
- A bachelor’s degree
- An associate degree plus 1 year of work experience
- 3 years of work experience.
Formative assessment is something that is used during the educational process. Everyone is familiar with this from their school days. A quiz, an exam, or even just the teacher asking you a few questions verbally to understand your level of knowledge. Usually, but not always, a formative assessment is used to to direct instruction. A common example of formative assessment is low-stakes exams given in K-12 schools purely to check on student growth, without any counting towards their grades. Some of the most widely used titles are the NWEA MAP, Renaissance Learning STAR, and Imagine Learning MyPath.
Formative assessment is a great fit for computerized adaptive testing, a method that adapts the difficulty of the exam to each student. If a student is 3 grades behind, the test will quickly adapt down to that level, providing a better experience for the student and more accurate feedback on their level of knowledge.
Summative and Formative Assessment
So what is the difference? You will notice it is the situation and use of the exam, not the exam itself. You could take those K-12 feedback assessments and deliver them at the end of the year, with weighting towards the student’s final grade. That would make them summative. But that is not what the test was designed for. This is the concept of validity; the evidence showing that interpretations and use of test scores are supported towards their intended use. So the key is to design a test for its intended use, provide evidence for that use, and make sure that the exam is being used in the way that it should be.
Nathan Thompson, PhD, is CEO and Co-Founder of Assessment Systems Corporation (ASC). He is a psychometrician, software developer, author, and researcher, and evangelist for AI and automation. His mission is to elevate the profession of psychometrics by using software to automate psychometric work like item review, job analysis, and Angoff studies, so we can focus on more innovative work. His core goal is to improve assessment throughout the world.
Nate was originally trained as a psychometrician, with an honors degree at Luther College with a triple major of Math/Psych/Latin, and then a PhD in Psychometrics at the University of Minnesota. He then worked multiple roles in the testing industry, including item writer, test development manager, essay test marker, consulting psychometrician, software developer, project manager, and business leader. He is also cofounder and Membership Director at the International Association for Computerized Adaptive Testing (iacat.org). He’s published 100+ papers and presentations, but his favorite remains https://scholarworks.umass.edu/pare/vol16/iss1/1/.