A New Era of Excellence Rooted in Tradition

Gloria Savino – October 24, 2014

Assessing Student Learning:

Formative and Summative Assessments



These descriptions, of the categories of assessment teachers use to determine and communicate student progress, are compiled from numerous sources.  If you would like further detail, please contact me and I would be pleased to send you links to informative sites.


Formative assessment is a constant activity of good teaching and focuses mostly on communication with the student her- or himself. Summative assessment, while it may motivate a surge of intense preparation, is much more about communicating with parents and about assessing the curriculum’s strengths and weaknesses. Both categories can be important in a school community, especially if their functions are clear.

Formative Assessment occurs as learners learn, when they are in the process of making meaning of new content and of integrating it into what they already know. Feedback to the learner is immediate in order to enable the learner to change his/her behavior and understandings. Formative assessments can be as informal as observing the learner's work or as formal as a written test.

With formative assessment, the teacher’s role is comparable to that of a coach. It enables the teacher to "turn on a dime" and rethink instructional strategies, activities, and content based on students’ understandings and performances. Formative assessments are powerful in improving student understanding and performance; they help teachers identify concepts that students are struggling to understand, skills they are having difficulty acquiring, and standards they have not yet achieved, so that adjustments can be made for better individual and group learning.

In other words, educators use formative assessments to monitor student learning and provide immediately useful feedback. Formative assessment allows teachers to refocus their instruction to support learning strategies that are rigorous and address the individual needs of each student.

Formative assessments also provide students with descriptive feedback as they learn. Descriptive feedback (as opposed to a check mark, a grade, or even a number on a rubric) accelerates students’ learning in the moment, provides students with an understanding of what they are doing well, and gives them the next step in their learning progression.

             Students learn to identify their own strengths and weaknesses and to target areas in which they need support.

             Teachers recognize quickly both where students are clear and struggling, and have the opportunity to cheer them along personally and address any issues immediately.

Examples of formative assessments include asking students to:

             ask questions and give the thumbs up or down

             work with a partner to discuss a topic and provide feedback to the class

             use a small white board to answer questions and then show the answers to the teacher

             draw a concept map in class to represent their understanding of a topic

             submit one or two sentences identifying the main idea

             submit two or three points that they recall about the topic discussed

             list the order of the formula that was presented

             verbally explain their work or a concept

             draw a picture showing the sequence of the story

             complete a quiz

             complete a short answer question (oral and written)

             Turn in an “exit slip” (determines students’ basic understanding by lesson’s end)

             Answer higher level questions (checks for depth of understanding and connectivity)

Self and peer assessments are also part of the formative universe of assessment. These also help to create a learning community within a classroom. Students who can reflect while engaged in metacognitive thinking are involved in their own learning. When students have been involved in criteria and goal setting, self-evaluation is a logical step in the learning process. With peer evaluation, students see each other as resources for understanding and checking for quality work. Student record-keeping helps students better understand their own learning as evidenced by their classroom work.

Summative Assessments focus on outcomes of learning and program goals using predetermined standards or benchmarks.  They are given at the end of a large chunk of learning, with the results being a “summary” that is primarily used by teachers and/or the school for reporting and record-keeping.

Results often take enough time to be returned to the student/parent that the class is already onto other work. Feedback to the student is more limited than with formative assessment, and the student rarely has or takes the opportunity to be reassessed.  Therefore, except in their motivational, and often anxiety inspiring, role, summative assessments tend to have much less impact on the real improvement of a student's understanding or performance. Teachers/schools may use these assessments to identify strengths and weaknesses of curriculum and instruction, so that improvements may be seen by the next cohort of students in that class.

Examples of summative assessments many include:

             unit or term exams

             chapter tests

             mid-term exams

             final assessments

             final projects

             State cumulative assessments (e.g. Regents and proficiency exams)


Hebrew Academy teachers are engaging in formative assessment every day, with every child.  Please let me know if you would like to discuss this further. I can be reached at email hidden; JavaScript is required.

Shabbat shalom.