An introduction to formative and summative assessment

Many people assume that ‘assessment’ means taking a test, but assessment is broader than that. There are two main types of assessment: summative assessment and formative assessment. These are sometimes referred to as assessment of learning and assessment for learning, respectively. At some level, both happen in almost all classrooms. The key to good assessment practice is to understand what each type contributes and to build your practice to maximise the effectiveness of each.

Summative assessment

Summative assessment sums up what a pupil has achieved at the end of a period of time, relative to the learning aims and the relevant national standards. The period of time may vary, depending on what the teacher wants to find out. There may be an assessment at the end of a topic, at the end of a term or half-term, at the end of a year or, as in the case of the national curriculum tests, at the end of a key stage.

A summative assessment may be a written test, an observation, a conversation or a task. It may be recorded through writing, through photographs or other visual media, or through an audio recording. Whichever medium is used, the assessment will show what has been achieved. It will summarise attainment at a particular point in time and may provide individual and cohort data that will be useful for tracking progress and for informing stakeholders (e.g. parents, governors, etc.).

Formative assessment

Formative assessment takes place on a day-to-day basis during teaching and learning, allowing teachers and pupils to assess attainment and progress more frequently. It begins with diagnostic assessment, indicating what is already known and what gaps may exist in skills or knowledge. If a teacher and pupil understand what has been achieved to date, it is easier to plan the next steps. As the learning continues, further formative assessments indicate whether teaching plans need to be amended to reinforce or extend learning.

Formative assessments may be questions, tasks, quizzes or more formal assessments. Often formative assessments may not be recorded at all, except perhaps in the lesson plans drawn up to address the next steps indicated.

It is possible for a summative assessment to be complemented with materials that help teachers to analyse the results to inform teaching and learning (therefore also having formative benefits). For example, the NFER spring teacher guides include ‘diagnostic guidance’ with analysis of common errors and teaching points.

For more on the effective use of assessment, look out for our upcoming ‘Brushing up on assessment’ series, a collection of free weekly guides designed for those looking to build their assessment knowledge. Sign up to our assessment newsletter to be the first to hear when each guide is released and for other exclusive content delivered direct to your inbox.

For further short reads on classroom assessment, visit our Introduction to Assessment page.

Read the report Read the article