Formative vs. Summative Assessment: What’s the Difference? [+ Comparison Chart]

A close-up shot of a hand and a sheet of paper on which a student takes notes during a lecture.

In education, assessments are the roadmap guiding teachers and students to successful outcomes — from navigating subject matter to reaching academic milestones. But not all means of measuring success are the same. In this blog post we’ll explore two of these methods: formative vs. summative assessment.

To maximize teaching effectiveness, it’s important to understand the differences between each assessment type. Keep reading to learn the benefits of tailoring instruction to meet the diverse needs of every learner, plus tips on implementing both techniques.

What Is Formative Assessment?

Formative assessment is not actually a singular method, but instead, a variety of ways for teachers to evaluate student comprehension, learning needs, and academic progress in real-time throughout a lesson, unit, or course. 

These assessments aid in identifying areas where students are struggling, skills they find challenging, or learning standards they have not yet achieved. This information enables teachers to make necessary adjustments to lessons and instructional techniques to better meet the needs of their students. 

Its primary goal is to measure a student’s understanding during instruction; for example, with quizzes, tests, or exams.

As learning and formative assessment expert Paul Black puts it, “when the cook tastes the soup, that’s formative assessment. When a customer tastes the soup, that’s summative assessment.”

What Is Summative Assessment?

Summative assessment, on the other hand, is any type of evaluation that measures a student’s overall comprehension and achievement at the end of a unit, course, or academic period. It typically takes the form of final exams or projects, and aims to gauge what students have learned. Unlike formative assessment, which provides ongoing feedback, summative assessment focuses on determining the extent to which students have mastered the content overall.

This culmination of the learning process helps teachers determine proficiency levels against predefined standards or benchmarks. These assessments — which often carry higher stakes — are used for accountability, such as grading, ranking, and reporting student achievement to parents and school administrators.

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3 Examples of Formative Assessment

For a clearer idea of formative assessment, explore these three examples:

  1. Exit tickets are brief assessments given to students at the end of a lesson or class period featuring questions that relate to that day’s work. Teachers use exit tickets to gauge student understanding before they leave the class, allowing them to adjust future instruction based on the feedback received. 
  1. Think-Pair-Share involves three stages: First, prompting students to independently think about a question related to a lesson, then having them pair up with a classmate to discuss their thoughts, before finally asking them to share their discussion with the class. The process encourages active engagement, collaboration, and comprehension.
  2. One-minute paper is aptly named, allowing students 60 seconds at the end of a lesson or class period to write down the most important concepts from the presented material. Teachers can review these papers to assess how well students understand the material at hand and address any misconceptions.

3 Examples of Summative Assessment

Likewise, here a few examples of summative assessments:

  1. Final exams are comprehensive assessments that are typically given at the end of a course or academic year and cover a broad range of topics that were covered over a longer period of time. 
  2. Standardized tests, such as the SAT and ACT, are administered and scored consistently across a large number of students for comparison purposes. They are also useful for identifying areas for improvement in educational systems and making decisions about student placement or advancement, such as admission into higher education institutions.  
  3. End-of-unit projects are typically more extensive than regular class assignments and require students to demonstrate their understanding of multiple concepts or skills covered in the unit. Research, originality, collaboration, and presentation are often involved.

How to Grade Formative Assessments

Because of the unique nature of each type of student evaluation, there is also variety in grading summative vs. formative assessments. The following are considerations when grading formative assessments:

How to Grade Summative Assessments

Consider these methods as you grade summative assessments, keeping in mind a fair and accurate representation of students’ learning outcomes and progress.

Formative vs. Summative Assessment Comparison Chart

Key considerationsFormative AssessmentSummative Assessment
TimeframeOngoing throughout instructionAt the end of a course or academic year
PurposeProvide opportunities for student improvement in real-timeEvaluate learning outcomes after lessons have concluded
IntentionUnderstanding progress; pinpointing areas for improvementGauge overall comprehension and label achievements
FrequencyRegular, frequent paceOccasional
ExamplesExit tickets, Think-Pair-Share, one-minute paperFinal exams, standardized tests, end-of-unit projects

Understanding these differences is crucial for educators to help students succeed in meaningful and effective ways. When teachers try out different assessment methods and grading styles, they get a better handle on student needs and can create an environment for widespread growth and improvement. 

The best way for teachers to advance their knowledge and understanding of the latest assessment methods is to keep up with professional development opportunities, such as with the University of San Diego’s Professional and Continuing Education (PCE) certificate program. Explore the website to learn more about hundreds of online and independent courses for teachers covering a wide range of subjects.

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