Ask the expert: Formative and summative assessment with NFER's David Simcock

In our first “Ask the Expert” feature, Research Manager in NFER’s Centre for Assessment and former teacher, David Simcock, answers some frequently asked questions on formative and summative assessment.

  1. How can I ensure formative assessment doesn’t eat up teaching time?

An alternative question might be, ‘Do I have time to teach in a way that doesn’t generate learning?’ Or perhaps, ‘Will it eat up teaching time if I needlessly re-teach content that my children already understand?’ The point of formative assessment is to monitor pupils’ learning so that teaching can be optimally adapted to their actual understanding. It should help you teach more efficiently, not less.

Formative assessment doesn’t always have to be a formalised, separate part of a lesson – ‘Right, now we need to stop and do five minutes of formative assessment.’ Formative assessment can be a few well-chosen questions at the end of an explanation, or a glance over a pupil’s shoulder during written work.

  1. Can summative assessments be used formatively?

Of course. It can be unhelpful to think of some assessments as summative and others as formative. The difference lies in what you do with the information gathered from an assessment. Imagine you administer a standardised spelling test. You could draw summative conclusions (‘this pupil’s spelling is above average for her age’) or formative ones (‘this pupil’s knowledge of common exception words needs reinforcing’). A single assessment can be used in both ways.

  1. How can results from formal testing be used in a formative way?

When using formal testing (generally an assessment delivered under “test conditions”), different subjects and age groups will require different approaches. But here are two general principles.

Firstly, don’t always leave it until the end of teaching period. You might be teaching a four or eight-week module on electricity. It feels natural to teach the topic, test the pupils, and then move on. But a formative approach to testing uses assessment as a way-marker, not as a final destination. Try giving the test after five or six weeks. It will make clear (to you and to the pupil) what to work on in the remaining two or three weeks.

Secondly, avoid focusing on marks or performance; the focus should be on how to improve. There may be times when pupils do not even need to know their level, score or grade. This relates back to the issue of test timing. Putting a test at the end of a module says, “This is a test of what you have learnt.” Putting it partway through a module says, “This is a test of what you need to learn.”

Written by David Simcock, Research Manager at NFER

David joined NFER’s Centre for Assessment in November 2015, after a several years of study and first-hand experience working in education. Following his graduation from the University of Oxford in 2012, David trained as a secondary English teacher, completing a PGCE two years later. He also has experience teaching English as an additional language in Spain and China. At NFER, David has worked on reading test development for the governments of England, Wales and Australia, as well as on NFER’s own suite of key stage 2 optional tests for reading, grammar and spelling. He is also working as part of the team developing the National Reference Tests for key stage 4.

Do you have a question on assessment that you’d like to put to one of our assessment team? Send it through to us at assessmenthub@nfer.ac.uk.

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