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

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Formative and summative assessments are among the most common types of educational evaluations, each with its own distinct purpose. Though the word "assessment" often conjures images of paper-and-pencil exams, our understanding of this topic has evolved greatly in recent years, along with our reasons for assessing and the types of assessments we give our students. Each type of evaluation has a specialized purpose. Read on to learn more about formative vs. summative assessments.

Formative assessments provide both students and teachers with the information they need to improve the learning process while it's happening. The goal of a formative assessment is to monitor progress toward a goal or objective, providing information in an expedient manner which allows both teachers and students to respond to the academic needs of the students. While we usually think of tests and evaluations being scored with a letter or number, formative assessments provide students with feedback rather than a grade.

We hear a lot about "high stakes" assessments, but formative assessments are quite the opposite. Unlike traditional tests, these aren't just pencil-and-paper products. Completing the assessment is just one part of the process. A true formative assessment includes an opportunity for both student and teacher to examine the results and use those results to inform future instruction.

Examples of formative assessments include:

  • A brief written summary of a lecture or lesson
  • Student-teacher conferences
  • A completed graphic organizer, such as a Venn diagram
  • A quiz, which can be scored by the student or teacher

What, then, is the difference between formative and summative assessments?

Summative assessments are generally administered at the end of a unit or course. Unlike formative assessments, which may occur several times during a course or unit, summative assessments occur only a few times over the course of the academic year. A common goal of this type of evaluation is to measure the mastery of learning standards. Unlike formative assessments, which emphasize feedback, summative assessments always yield a specific grade.

Because they are broader in scope and measure learning over a longer time period, summative assessments tend to have higher stakes. While formative assessments can take on a wide variety of formats, summative assessments tend to feature a narrower range of question types, such as multiple choice, short answer and essay.

Examples of summative assessments include:

  • End of term or semester final exams
  • End of unit or chapter tests
  • Benchmark assessments which measure mastery of a standard
  • State exams

These two types of educational evaluation have significant differences, but there are some similarities when looking at formative vs. summative assessments. Both formative and summative evaluations require careful thought and planning about what knowledge or skills are being measured. And each type of evaluation collects useful, important information which fulfills a very specific purpose. A strong assessment program, whether it's classroom-based, school-wide, or district-wide, will include both kinds of assessment.

A teacher's life includes a wide range of responsibilities and activities, and assessment is just one of many important educational tasks. If you're thinking of expanding your professional knowledge and taking your teaching career to the next level, explore Master of Education programs at AIU.

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