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Both formative and summative assessments are important parts of a well-rounded assessment program. Shutterstock

Explainer: what’s the difference between formative and summative assessment in schools?

The recent Gonski report argues Australia needs assessment and reporting models that capture both achievement progress and long-term learning progress. This, according to the review panel, involves low-stakes, low-key, and regular formative assessments to support learning progressions. The report used international evidence on individualised teaching to demonstrate ongoing formative assessment and feedback is fundamental to supporting students to do better in school.

The NSW Education Minister, Rob Stokes, has called for NAPLAN to be replaced in “haste” with less high stakes tests. Mark Scott, the secretary of the NSW Department of Education, echoed Stokes’ remarks. He stated:

I think [NAPLAN] will become obsolete because the kinds of information that the new assessment schemes will give us will be richer and deeper and more meaningful for teachers, for parents and for education systems.

So, what’s the difference between formative and summative assessment? And when should each be used? Formative and summative assessment have different purposes and both have an important role to play in a balanced assessment program.

Formative assessments provide students with feedback and show where gaps in learning are. Shutterstock

Formative assessment

Formative assessment includes a range of strategies such as classroom discussions and quizzes designed to generate feedback on student performance. This is done so teachers can make changes in teaching and learning based on what students need.

It involves finding out what students know and do not know, and continually monitoring student progress during learning. Both teachers and students are involved in decisions about the next steps in learning.

Read more: Marking answers with a tick or cross won't enhance learning

Teachers use the feedback from formative tasks to identify what students are struggling with and adjust instruction appropriately. This could involve re-teaching key concepts, changing how they teach or modifying teaching resources to provide students with additional support. Students also use feedback from formative tasks to reflect on and improve their own work.

Regular classroom tasks, whether formal (for example, traditional pen and paper tests) or informal (such as classroom discussions), can be adapted into effective formative tasks by:

  • making students aware of the learning goals/success criteria using rubrics and carefully tracking student progress against them

  • including clear instructions to guide students through a series of activities to demonstrate the success criteria. A teacher might, for example, design a series of activities to guide students through an inquiry or research process in science

  • providing regular opportunities for feedback from the teacher, other students or parents (this feedback may be face-to face, written, or online)

  • making sure students have opportunities to reflect on and make use of feedback to improve their work. This may involve asking students to write a short reflection about the feedback on their draft essay and using this to improve their final version.

There are many advantages of formative assessment:

  • feedback from formative assessment helps students become aware of any gaps between their goal and their current knowledge, understanding, or skill

  • tasks guide students through the actions necessary to hit learning goals

  • tasks encourage students to focus their attention on the task (such as undertaking an inquiry or research process) rather than on simply getting the right answer

  • students and teachers receive ongoing feedback about student progress towards learning goals, which enables teachers to adjust their instructional approach in response to what students need

  • students build their self-regulation skills by setting learning goals and monitoring their progress towards them

  • results of formative assessments can also be used for grading and reporting.

Summative assessments are generally standardised and rarely provide feedback. Shutterstock

Summative assessment

This includes end of unit examinations and the NSW Higher School Certificate (HSC) examination.

Summative assessment provides students, teachers and parents with an understanding of the pupil’s overall learning. Most commonly thought of as formal, time-specific exams, these assessments may include major essays, projects, presentations, art works, creative portfolios, reports or research experiments. These assessments are designed to measure the student’s achievement relative to the subject’s overall learning goals as set out in the relevant curriculum standards.

The design and goals of summative assessments are generally standardised so they can be applied to large numbers of students, multiple cohorts and time periods. Data collected on individual student, cohort, school or system performance provides schools and principals with a tool to evaluate student knowledge relative to the learning objectives. They can also compare them with previous cohorts and other schools.

Read more: Evidence-based education needs standardised assessment

The measurement and evaluation of student achievement this way gives us necessary information about how we can continuously improve learning and teaching.

There are a number of limitations of summative assessment. While formative assessments usually provide feedback for the student to review and develop their learning, summative assessments are rarely returned to students. When assessments provide only a numerical grade and little or no feedback, as the NSW HSC does, it’s hard for students and teachers to pinpoint learning needs and determine the way forward.

Additionally, being a form of “high stakes” assessment, results may be perceived as a way of ranking students. For high achieving students there is recognition and reward, while for the lower performing students there is potential embarrassment and shame. Neither of these things should be associated with an equal opportunity education system.

The author would like to acknowledge the work of David McDonald, a PhD student at Macquarie University in assessment, in writing this article.

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