When we think of assessments in education, we often do so without thinking holistically. Teachers might focus on formative assessment tools and practices that help them understand in the moment how well their students are grasping the information, or, at this time of year, we may think of state-wide summative tests. But in reality, all assessments in education play an important role in illuminating student understanding and performance. There are multiple measures that can and should be used to make informed instructional decisions. This two-part blog series will speak to two assessments that are part of a balanced assessment system: summative and formative.
First, let’s define summative and formative assessment, as often there is confusion on what these are and how they are used. Summative assessments are culminating assessments that measure and report whether students have learned a prescribed set of content. Their purpose is to give an overall description of students’ status and evaluate the effectiveness of the educational environment. Large-scale summative assessment is designed to be brief and uniform, so there is often limited information to inform instruction or diagnose learning issues. Summative assessments include end-of-year subject or course exams, state assessments, even report card grades. Summative assessment certifies learning.
Formative assessment, on the other hand, guides learning. We’re not talking about a “test”; formative assessment practice is a planned process used by teachers and students during instruction that provides in-the-moment feedback for adjusting ongoing teaching and learning to improve students’ learning. Its purpose is to help teachers gather evidence of learning, adjust instruction in process, and help students identify and internalize their learning goals, reflect on their own understanding, and evaluate the quality of their work.
As Catherine Garrison and Michael Ehringhaus share in their AMLE article, Formative and Summative Assessments in the Classroom:
Another distinction that underpins formative assessment is student involvement. If students are not involved in the assessment process, formative assessment is not practiced or implemented to its full effectiveness. Students need to be involved both as assessors of their own learning and as resources to other students. There are numerous strategies teachers can implement to engage students. In fact, research shows that the involvement in and ownership of their work increases students’ motivation to learn. This does not mean the absence of teacher involvement. To the contrary, teachers are critical in identifying learning goals, setting clear criteria for success, and designing assessment tasks that provide evidence of student learning.
So how can teachers use the data from summative assessments in their classroom? And what formative assessment strategies help teachers move student learning forward? We’ll share some thoughts and strategies in our blog next week.