This post originally appeared on the blog Primary Cornerstone.

What is the difference between formative and summative assessments? Why choose one over the other? When is it appropriate to implement each strategy? How do I use the information gathered from formative and/or summative assessments? These are questions that I have asked myself and sometimes you may ask yourself as well. Let’s explore the major differences between formative and summative assessments and find the answers to these questions.

Formative Assessments

The end goal of a formative assessment (FA) is to improve and enhance student learning.

When we think of an assessment, we tend to think of a test where students are isolated from one another, they’re quiet, and they receive no input or support from the teacher. Once that test is done, we give them a grade and call it a day. That is in fact, an assessment, but it is a summative one and not formative.

FAs happen throughout the learning and they take place every single day. Teachers are constantly assessing students in a formative manner. It does not have to be formal and does not have to be done on paper. Teachers gather information by observing students and noting their progress. This information helps to guide instruction so that the teacher may offer differentiation, intervention, or enrichment.

What does formative assessment look like?

It can be a worksheet, partner work, accountable talk time, hands-on learning… whatever your students are working on and you are noting progress for can be formatively assessed. It can be as simple as doing a quick walk around and jotting down anecdotal notes. Those notes would then be used to group students, differentiate, or plan for the next lesson.

While teachers are doing FAs, they should provide students with feedback in order to help them improve. You can click on the picture below to read more about Effective Feedback for Student Learning, watch a video where I explain it in detail and get access to a free goal setting sheet for students.

One way that I do FA during math is with the use of color cubes. My math lesson follows a GROR (gradual release of responsibility) model. I start with the I Do, during which I model the work for the students. It is then followed by the We Do and students work together as partners (I walk around and observe their conversations, how well they work together, how they explain their thinking, and look for misconceptions…) The You Do comes next and it is the time where students have to work on their own. I walk around with color cubes and watch students as they work independently. Then I place a cube on their desk and the color they get indicates to them what they need to do once they are done.

Blue: Go to the back table to work with the teacher (intervention)

Pink: Work on independent practice (student who understood the concept)

Green: Independent practice followed by a center activity (the center activity is enrichment)

This practice allows me to provide my students with the proper support they need based on their needs. It does not wait until the end of the unit to address difficulties; instead, it gives the students the opportunity to learn from their mistakes right there and then.

Summative Assessments

The end goal of a summative assessment (SA) is to prove student learning. It is most often given at the end of a unit of study; however, it can also be done at the end of a lesson.

I’ll be the first to admit that SAs come with a deal of stress for both students and educators, because they are usually district or statewide mandated. When our students have to take these types of assessments or we are under pressure to have a certain amount of grades in, it can be quite daunting. SAs come attached with a grade that can sometimes be subjective or damaging to students because they can carry judgement about a student’s knowledge. Now, are all SAs bad? No, I’m not suggesting that at all. But, with careful analysis of educational practices, we have to be open to see the strengths as well as the weaknesses in some approaches.

Not all SAs are high stakes, state, and/or district mandated. SAs can also be created and given by educators in order to asses the learning that took place during an entire unit. It measures retention of that knowledge. Because SAs represent a culmination of a unit of study, the result is not feedback, but rather, a grade.

Some teachers will FA throughout a lesson and then SA at the end of the lesson with the use of an exit ticket. This exit ticket can go both ways. It can be a FA to guide the lesson for the next day or a SA as a culmination of that lesson within the unit. Again, the piece that differentiates summative from formative assessments is that summative does not come with feedback and it is not necessarily used to guide instruction, but rather to provide retention data and a grade.

How do I know when to formative vs. summative assess?

Think of what the purpose is. If you want to gauge progress in order to provide support and feedback for your students, then you would formatively assess. No grading.

If you are looking to determine what they have retained and get a grade as a culmination, then you would summatively assess.

Happy Teaching/Feedbacking (is that a word?) /Assessing 🙂

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Kay is a wife, mother of two, and primary educator. In addition to teaching, she is very engaged in her school district as a PD instructor for Phonics, a teacher mentor, and a partner in the development of a dual language program. She is passionate about sound pedagogy, higher order thinking, student engagement, and anti-bias education. This passion is reflected and evident in her TpT shop, with resources made to support students and teachers in reading & writing fluency, engagement, and social justice among others. You can find Kay on Instagram and Facebook as Primary Cornerstone.