students discussing formative summative assessment

Summative and formative assessment are a crucial component of the educational process.  If you work in the educational assessment field or even in educational generally, you have probably encountered these terms.  What do they mean?  This post will explore the differences between summative and formative assessment.

Assessment plays a crucial role in education, serving as a powerful tool to gauge student understanding and guide instructional practices. Among the various assessment methods, two approaches stand out: formative assessment and summative assessment. While both types aim to evaluate student performance, they serve distinct purposes and are applied at different stages of the learning process.


What is Summative Assessment?

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:

  1. A bachelor’s degree
  2. An associate degree plus 1 year of work experience
  3. 3 years of work experience.

How it is developed

Summative assessments are usually developed by assessment professionals, or a board of subject matter experts led by assessment professionals.  For example, a certification for ophthalmology is not informally developed by a teacher; there is a panel of experienced ophthalmologists led by a psychometrician.  A high school graduation exam might be developed by a panel of experienced math or English teachers, again led by a psychometrician and test developers.

The process is usually very long and time-intensive, and therefore quite expensive.  A certification will need a job analysis, item writing workshop, standard-setting study, and other important developments that contribute to the validity of the exam scores.  A high school graduation exam has expensive curriculum alignment studies and other aspects.

Implementation of Summative Assessment

Let’s explore the key aspects of summative assessment:

  1. End-of-Term Evaluation: Summative assessments are administered after the completion of a unit, semester, or academic year. They aim to evaluate the overall achievement of students and determine their readiness for advancement or graduation.
  2. Formal and Standardized: Summative assessments are often formal, standardized, and structured, ensuring consistent evaluation across different students and classrooms. Common examples include final exams, standardized tests, and grading rubrics.
  3. Accountability: Summative assessment holds students accountable for their learning outcomes and provides a comprehensive summary of their performance. It also serves as a basis for grade reporting, academic placement, and program evaluation.
  4. Future Planning: Summative assessment results can guide future instructional planning and curriculum development. They provide insights into areas of strength and weakness, helping educators identify instructional strategies and interventions to improve student outcomes.


What is Formative Assessment?student assessment

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.

How it is developed

Formative assessments are typically much more informal than summative assessments.  Most of the exams we take in our life are informally developed formative assessments; think of all the quizzes and tests you ever took during courses as a student.  Even taking a test during training on the job will often count.  However, some are developed with heavy investment, such as a nationwide K-12 adaptive testing platform.

Implementation of Formative Assessment

Formative assessment refers to the ongoing evaluation of student progress throughout the learning journey. It is designed to provide immediate feedback, identify knowledge gaps, and guide instructional decisions. Here are some key characteristics of formative assessment:

  1. Timely Feedback: Formative assessments are conducted during the learning process, allowing educators to provide immediate feedback to students. This feedback focuses on specific strengths and areas for improvement, helping students adjust their understanding and study strategies.
  2. Informal Nature: Formative assessments are typically informal and flexible, offering a wide range of techniques such as quizzes, class discussions, peer evaluations, and interactive activities. They encourage active participation and engagement, promoting deeper learning and critical thinking skills.
  3. Diagnostic Function: Formative assessment serves as a diagnostic tool, enabling teachers to monitor individual and class-wide progress. It helps identify misconceptions, adapt instructional approaches, and tailor learning experiences to meet students’ needs effectively.
  4. Growth Mindset: The primary goal of formative assessment is to foster a growth mindset among students. By focusing on improvement rather than grades, it encourages learners to embrace challenges, learn from mistakes, and persevere in their educational journey.


Summative vs Formative Assessment

Below you may find some principal discrepancies between summative and formative assessment across the general aspects.

Aspect Summative Assessment Formative Assessment
Purpose To evaluate overall student learning at the end of an instructional period. To monitor student learning and provide ongoing feedback for improvement.
Timing Conducted at the end of a unit, semester, or course. Conducted throughout the learning process.
Role in Learning Process To determine the extent of learning and achievement. To identify learning needs and guide instructional adjustments.
Feedback Mechanism Feedback is usually provided after the assessment is completed and is often limited to final results or scores. Provides immediate, specific, and actionable feedback to improve learning.
Nature of Evaluation Typically evaluative and judgmental, focusing on the outcome. Diagnostic and supportive, focusing on the process and improvement.
Impact on Grading Often a major component of the final grade. Generally not used for grading; intended to inform learning.
Level of Standardization Highly standardized to ensure fairness and comparability. Less standardized, often tailored to individual needs and contexts.
Frequency of Implementation Typically infrequent, such as once per term or unit. Frequent and ongoing, integrated into the daily learning activities.
Stakeholders Involved Primarily involves educators and administrative bodies for accountability purposes. Involves students, educators, and sometimes parents for immediate learning support.
Flexibility in Use Rigid in format and timing; used to meet predetermined educational benchmarks. Highly flexible; can be adapted to fit specific instructional goals and learner needs.


The Synergy Between Summative and Formative Assessment

While formative and summative assessments have distinct purposes, they work together in a complementary manner to enhance learning outcomes. Here are a few ways in which these assessment types can be effectively integrated:

  1. Feedback Loop: The feedback provided during formative assessments can inform and improve summative assessments. It allows students to understand their strengths and weaknesses, guiding their study efforts for better performance in the final evaluation.
  2. Continuous Improvement: By employing formative assessments throughout a course, teachers can continuously monitor student progress, identify learning gaps, and adjust instructional strategies accordingly. This iterative process can ultimately lead to improved summative assessment results.
  3. Balanced Assessment Approach: Combining both formative and summative assessments creates a more comprehensive evaluation system. It ensures that student growth and understanding are assessed both during the learning process and at the end, providing a holistic view.


Summative and Formative Assessment: A Validity Perspective

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.

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Nathan Thompson, PhD

Nathan Thompson earned his PhD in Psychometrics from the University of Minnesota, with a focus on computerized adaptive testing. His undergraduate degree was from Luther College with a triple major of Mathematics, Psychology, and Latin. He is primarily interested in the use of AI and software automation to augment and replace the work done by psychometricians, which has provided extensive experience in software design and programming. Dr. Thompson has published over 100 journal articles and conference presentations, but his favorite remains .
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