Summa-wha? Defining our assessment buzzwords

I have a problem: I’m fresh out of my B.Ed program, new to teaching, and I’m easily hooked on expanding my vocabulary.

If you aren’t a teacher, you may wonder how these things add up to a problem.  If you are a teacher, you probably already have buzzword-proximity sirens going off.  You may experience slight itching or allergic reactions as I nitpick on definitions for things like “summative” and “formative”.  Warning: may contain uses of “flow”, “pedagogy”, or “reflect”.  (Okay, maybe that last one is just an SFU thing.)

When my B.Ed program (called PDP there) first brought up assessment, the guest speaker did an activity where words were passed around on index cards, and we did something I don’t even remember what, but the important part was that I ended up stumbling across these cards that said “summative” and “formative”.  I asked the speaker what these meant, and she pulled a classic PDP technique – she asked me what I thought they meant.  I suggested something totally wrong, about summative being a summary and formative being … um I had no idea.  She nodded and didn’t disagree with me and offered no better definition but suggested I was on the right track.  We then proceeded to talk about assessment some more, providing context to show me that I was pretty much wrong, but feeling just uncertain enough that it continued to haunt me.

And thus, my journey began.

At the time, this kind of annoyed me.  In retrospect, I am so glad that I had this experience rather than someone trying to lay out the facts for me.  This got me hooked on figuring out just what this nonsense was supposed to mean, which helped me dodge a lot of conceptual landmines that I watched other teachers, new and otherwise, get hit by over and over.

There are a number of misconceptions (or things I *think* are misconceptions; still learning here) that I’ll quickly address, and then I’ll try to round out my own definition at the end that hopefully clears up these myths.

Myth #1: Summative = traditional assessment (exams, tests);  formative = progressive assessment (SBG, informal assessment, etc)

Myth #2: Summative is bad, formative is good.

Myth #3: An assessment is either summative or formative, not both.

I’m hoping that for those of you who have looked into assessment practices, these myths are familiar enough that I don’t need to expand on them.  I could dredge up plenty of examples from my own experience, but let’s cut to the good stuff.

My current understanding:

An assessment is summative when it reports information on a student’s past learning to the outside community. This corresponds to the buzz-phrase “assessment of learning” that’s also passed around in educational circles.

An assessment is formative when it reports information on a student’s current learning to the student and/or the instructor. The matching buzz-phrases here are “assessment for learning” and “assessment as learning”.

Probably the biggest shift here away from the myths listed above is to start using these words to describe functionality, rather than as mutually exclusive categories.  There are many types of assessment, both traditional and progressive, that function as both summative and formative assessment.


  • A traditional unit test is summative in that it is included in the grade that ends up on the report card.  It is formative in that it informs students on what they may need to study for a final exam.
  • A Standards-Based Grading assessment is formative in that students are informed of the results in time to adjust their understanding, study, practice, etc and be reassessed later.  SBG assessments are also summative in that they form the final grade which goes on the report card at the end of the course.

One reason I think we really need this clarification in how we use these words is that new assessment strategies such as SBG are not only better at functioning as formative assessments, but are also potentially much better summative assessments as well.  eg. SBG does a great job of gathering information on what a student has learned, and that information could (in theory) be passed along to the outside community, or to teachers who the student will see next year.

Another related reason I think we need to be clearer in how we use these terms is that if we aren’t, we risk falling hard on Myth #2 which ends up ostracizing those peers who primarily use traditional assessments.

On the flip side, with a focus on using “formative” and “summative” as describing functionality, we can start having useful discussions around how good a job a given assessment does at being formative or summative.  In my perfect world, we should be looking for overall assessment strategies that are fantastic from both a summative and formative standpoint.  (In my actual world, we’re usually stuck within a very rigid system of how summative results are reported, so there’s only so much you can do. But, still.)

There’s still (at least) one huge understanding lurking in those definitions that I haven’t expanded on, but this is already rather long and I think I’ll need a diagram to explain what I’ve got in mind next.

Does this help anyone?


2 thoughts on “Summa-wha? Defining our assessment buzzwords

  1. This helped me – thanks.

  2. I think a summative assessment is a summary of what we know. Think about a basketball team. When the season is over, they sit down and *look back* on the season, summatively assessing what they did well and what they need to improve *for next year*. The current season is over, so they must now summarize what they’ve accomplished and where they need to go from here. Were they toward the bottom in rebounding? Toward the top in scoring?

    Here’s what they don’t do: They don’t run the team out for one “summative” assessment against a scout team.

    In my opinion, a summative assessment is not another data point. It is an evaluation of the data points you currently have.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s