The debate between formative and summative assessment really comes down to a discussion about whether you believe that education should be a system for learning or a system for sorting. If education is to be a system for learning, then formative assessment that “help[s] students identify their strengths and weaknesses and target areas that need work” and “help[s] faculty recognize where students are struggling and address problems immediately” (Whys and Hows of Assessment) is what is primarily required. Formative assessment provides ongoing information to help build a body of knowledge and expertise.
Summative assessment, on the other hand, is often a system for sorting. It dictates which students have made it, learned it, or achieved it and which students have not. The goal of a summative assessment “is to evaluate student learning at the end of an instructional unit by comparing it against some standard or benchmark” (Whys and Hows of Assessment). Summative assessment can be a dividing line that separates those who can and those who can’t at that point of time. If you can, you move on; if you can’t, you stay behind.
Summative assessment is an outward facing form of assessment. It provides a mark of where you are, but it does little to help you get there or beyond. Formative assessment, however, can be described as inward facing—it is more child and learning focused, and it places the individual and the process above any definitive score or cut off.
Yet few assessments are automatically summative or formative. More often it is how you use the results that determines whether they are formative or summative—that is, whether they are being used as instruments for learning (formative) or of learning (summative), as Stephen Chappuis and Jan Chappuis state in the Educational Leadership article The Best Value in Formative Assessment.
Almost any assessment instrument can be used for summative or formative purposes, but some, by design, are better suited to summative use and others to formative use. For example, state assessments, although they may also have some limited formative use, are designed to provide accountability data and to compare schools and districts. Because their primary purpose is summative, the results may not be communicated in ways that teachers and students can easily interpret and work with. Further, the results are often delivered months after the administration of the tests. For these reasons, such state tests usually do not function well in a formative way: They can’t contribute much information to guide day-to-day instruction or help determine the next learning steps of individual students.
– Stephen Chappuis and Jan Chappuis, The Best Value in Formative Assessment
Rarely will a teacher only use one form of assessment—formative or summative. But the degree to which a teacher uses one over the other outlines and underlines her philosophy for teaching. There may be times (or, rather, accountability systems) that require summative assessment. But if summative assessment is predominantly used, then the message we are sending students is that education is a system for sorting. You either know it, can do it, and can repeat it, or you can’t. You either pass go and collect $200 or take one more trip around the board.
If we are aiming to implement more personalized learning, more student voice and ownership, and more guide on the side (as opposed to sage on the stage), then formative assessment will aid and support these goals. The basis of formative assessment is to engage students and involve them in the learning process. The assessments are used to gauge, discuss, and modify the processes. To do the opposite—to allow personalized learning but assess solely or mainly summatively—can be counterproductive or and counterintuitive. The teacher’s actions initially promote ownership and cater to individual needs, yet the use of a summative assessment declares that a common timeline and a common set of requirements are nonnegotiable.
Are you teaching for learning or are you teaching for sorting? Either way, check your methods of assessment—they send a message loud and clear.