Formative vs. Summative Assessments

Formative and Summative Assessments

How do we know when a student has successfully completed a goal? We can plan all we want, write goals and objectives all we want, but if we miss this aspect, we won’t really know if our students have obtained the skills or level of success we wish for them to obtain. Probably the most important aspect of backwards planning is the assessment. When a good assessment is planned ahead of time, teachers can build an entire lesson with the goal of helping the students complete that assessment. Not all assessments are created equal, and not all assessments truly provide the best data for evaluating student success. In this blog post, we will discuss the differences between formative and summative assessments, when they’re best used, and apply them directly to an objective in the Declaration of Independence unit which we’ve been discussing for some time now.

There are many types of assessments, but they fall into two primary categories: formative and summative. In a formative assessment, teachers will evaluate a student’s progress in achieving the overall goal of the lesson. This will not be a final task, but a checkpoint along the way. In a video game, it might look like a save checkpoint before the completion of a level. These are very informal in the classroom, and they can include anything from questions and answers to Think-Pair-Share activities to written homework assignments and exit tickets. A teacher will use these activities to evaluate the progress a student is making towards reaching their goals. If a student is able to complete these activities, the teacher will move on to the next step in that process; if not, the teacher might choose to re-teach certain subjects or concepts before moving on. (Mellon, n.d.)

A summative assessment is quite different. The summative assessment is the end-product which the teacher expects the students to be able to complete at the end of the lesson or unit. It’s the finish line, the victory song after the last boss-fight. This is the assessment that will go into the gradebook. The summative assessment might take the form of a student-produced video, an essay, a PowerPoint, or a multiple-choice exam. The summative assessment will be used for data collection and reflection as well, but mostly in terms of planning and preparation for the following school year. Were the students successful? If not, why not? The teacher will evaluate their own effectiveness through the use of summative assessments, and if serious gaps of knowledge are apparent in these assessments the teacher might choose to spend an extra day or two at the end of a unit reteaching those concepts. (Ronan et al., 2015). I did this when most of my students missed all of the subtraction-with-borrowing questions on the same math test. We took two days to reteach borrowing, and then retook the exam. Students did much better the second time.

To clarify the difference between summative and formative assessments even further, let’s take a look at the following objective from our Declaration of Independence unit. This objective occurs at the end of the unit, when students have already analyzed and dissected the grievances, what they meant, and how they violated the rights to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. Now comes the culmination activity: writing a Declaration of Independence of their own through a Fish-Bowl discussion with elected representatives. The class will use this to declare its independence from the government of the classroom, which has been unfairly and arbitrarily taxing the student’s economy system for the last month.

Objective: Working as a class through elected representatives, the students will create their own Declaration of Independence, following the format of the original document.

There are two tasks in this objective that need to complete, and each one will need their own formative and summative assessments. They are:

  1. Working as a class through elected representatives.
  2. Create a Declaration of Independence following the format of the original document.

The table below shows how one might break down the assessments for each goal. I have included an explanation as to why I chose each assessment, as well.

Goal Formative Assessment Summative Assessment
Working as a class through elected representatives, students will create a declaration of independence Each group will write a list of grievances which they want their representative to share with the other representatives during the discussion. One student will take notes on who suggested which grievance.

This will serve as a written documentation of the participation and involvement of each student. The teacher will also monitor student participation during these discussions. This will ensure that the whole class participates in the formation of the document. If I find that students are not participating, I will give more time as needed or whisper suggestions to one or two students so that they can participate in the discussion.
During the Fish Bowl, the elected representatives will bring the list to the discussion and refer to it as they work with the other representatives to create a final list of grievances for the Declaration. Students will be evaluated based upon their ability to compile all three lists into one whole-class list of grievances.

This is the “elected representative” evaluation. Are the representatives following the wishes of the people? Their ability to compile this list shows the ability of the students to appropriately meet the collaboration requirements.

Create a Declaration of Independence following the format of the original document. Students will have an outline of the main parts of the declaration (statement of rights, grievances of those rights, conclusion), and in their groups they will decide upon the “unalienable rights” the students should have in the classroom before they write the grievances which broke those rights. Students will be evaluated based on the list of rights they give and the reasons they give for these rights.

This list will serve as the basis for the discussion in the Fish Bowl exercise later on. If it becomes apparent that students are struggling with these concepts, the teacher can step in and re-teach them as necessary.
The elected representatives will follow an outline of the declaration to write a class Declaration of Independence. They will be evaluated based upon the successful completion of the Declaration, and whether or not they followed the outline provided.

This task is a good summative assessment because in order to complete it, students have to apply the information they learned about each section on the outline directly into a new context. They are taking the information and creating something with it, which requires a whole new level of skill with the given topic. They cannot do this if they do not understand each component of the outline.The class will be graded as a whole group for this activity, with extra credit points given to the representatives for their level of effort in the lesson.


Planning a lesson becomes much easier when a teacher starts with the end goal in mind. Knowing that my students are going to be working together to write their own Declaration of Independence, I’ve had formative and summative assessments in each lesson along the way to build them towards that goal. This final assessment is like the last boss-fight of a video game, or like crossing the finish line on the most difficult race track in a racing game. By this point, students have finished several smaller assessments that helped them build up to this final task. But I would not have designed those tasks if I didn’t have this end-goal in mind. Backwards-mapping, then, relies entirely upon the teacher’s ability to plan purposeful assessments.


Classroom assessment. Retrieved April 2, 2016, from

Mellon, C. Formative vs Summative assessment – teaching excellence & educational innovation – Carnegie Mellon university. Retrieved April 2, 2016, from
Ronan, A., Levy, L., DeLoatch, P., Staff, E., Hicks, K., Nott, M., … Whittle, L. A. (2015, April 29). Every teacher’s guide to assessment. Retrieved April 2, 2016, from


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