Friday, April 5, 2013

Implications of Using Formative vs Summative Assessment Labels

My goal in writing this article is to underpin potential changes in assessment and marking practices as they pertain to using the language and semantics surrounding the terms formative and summative assessment.  In today's classrooms students will often ask this question when an assignment is being assigned and explained, "Is this going to be a formative or summative assessment?"  Which for some students really means, "Is this going to count for marks or is it just practice?"  Should we be transparent with our students in regards to our assessment intentions?  What impact does pre-determining our assessment intentions have on student attitude, engagement and achievement?

As an avid runner, I was intrigued by the debate over the semantics used my many when it comes to the terms "jogging" and “running”.    To some they mean the same thing.  When one looks up definitions of these two words most use speed as a way to differentiate a jog from a run.  According to Wikipedia, “Jogging is a form of trotting or running at a slow or leisurely pace.”  Since most of the definitions are subjective, I believe it is up to each individual to decide if their pace warrants the title of a "run" or a "jog".  As long as your pace keeps you motivated, the term you choose is just a minor detail.  Should this hold true for assessing student work?

Since the landmark study by Black and Wiliam (1998) about the benefits of formative assessment, there has been a plethora of schools that have adopted assessment policies and practices that differentiate between formative and summative assessment in the classroom.  Is this new assessment language necessary at the onset of giving an assignment?  Why pre-determine what our assessment intentions? 

Research has shown that many schools struggle with establishing clear operational definitions, guidelines and procedures for implementing formative and summative assessments anyways.  According to Dunn and Mulvenon (2009), “Definitions of formative and summative assessment are plentiful, resulting in multiple and sometimes conflicting understandings.  And in part because of these varying definitions and views, practices labeled as formative assessment in schools today vary widely.” Although any assessment may be designed, packaged and labeled as a formative or summative assessment, it is the actual methodology, data analysis, and use of the results that determine whether an assessment is formative or summative.  It is what a teacher does with the data afterward that helps delineate which type of assessment you are using.  Summative data is used to make a judgment about a student and is often finite and counts toward a report card mark.  However, formative data is only used to help inform students, teachers and parents about their recent performance level.  It is my belief that good teachers will provide feedback and information to students regardless of whether it is formative or summative.  
In my school formative assessment is thought to guide students and teachers by providing valuable and timely feedback regarding where the student is at, on a given set of standards, and where they need to go.  Formative assessment is thought of as “practice” and summative assessment is more like “the game” situation because the score has more impact on the student's grade.   My question is, do teachers need to predetermine their intention to students regarding what type of assessment (formative vs summative) will be used? On page 3 of my school’s assessment policy handbook it is clear that we should divulge this information,  "Students need to be told how assessment tasks are to be evaluated."  

This level of transparency may have motivational and achievement implications for students.  This open and transparent approach to assessment intentions has benefits and drawbacks. Some believe that when assignment are labeled formative or “practice” students are more relaxed and less stressed about the pressure associated with doing well because it does not count as much towards report card marks.  Furthermore, this high level of openness and transparency promotes an environment of trust and mutual respect amongst students and teachers.   Yet, an obvious drawback to pre-determining which type of assessment you will use is that students may put in less effort and therefore underachieve on formative tasks because they do not count for marks.  

When a runner heads out for exercise, I wonder if they decide in their mind whether they will "jog" or "run" that day?  As educators is it really necessary to consider ahead of time what our intentions may be for students?  We could divulge ahead of time whether we will formatively or summative assess student work or we could wait until after the assignment has been handed in before determining the nature of the feedback we will be providing.  Maybe there is a third choice?  According to Perkins (2008), "when learners feel that they have a choice about just where they focus their attention and just how they proceed, they are more likely to show intrinsic motivation."  Thus, what if we let students decide ahead of time what type of assessment they would like to use for a particular assignment: formative or summative?  It would be an interesting action research study to see if there is a difference in student attitude, engagement and/or achievement on assignments when posed with these three assessment scenarios: students are told ahead of time, students are not told until they hand in an assignment, and students are given a choice as to the type of assessment used. 

What are your experiences when it comes to pre-determining whether an assignment is formative or summative?


Black, P. and Wiliam, D. (1998). Inside the black box: Raising standards through classroom assessment. Phi Delta Kappan, 80 (2): 139-148. (Available online:

Dunn, Karee E and Mulvenon, Sean W. (2009). A Critical Review of Research on Formative
Assessments:  The Limited Scientific Evidence of the Impact of Formative Assessments in Education. Practical Assessment Research & Evaluation, 14(7).  Available online:

"Jogging." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 03 May 2013. Web. 20 Mar. 2013.

Perkins, David.  (2008).  Making Learning Whole: How Seven Principles of Teaching Can Transform Education.   San Francisco, CA.  Jossey-Bass

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