Function over Format

In all of the discussion and debate regarding summative and formative assessments, there is one misunderstanding that seems to be revealing itself more and more.

Too often, the discussion regarding summative v. formative assessment seems to navigate toward a critique of certain assessment formats and their place in either the summative or formative camp.  For me, this is an irrelevant discussion and can distract us from developing balanced assessment systems that seek to match assessment methods most appropriately with the intended learning.  In short, an assessment’s format has little, if anything, to do with whether an assessment is formative or summative; what matters is its function.

To determine whether an assessment is formative or summative ask yourself this one simple question: Who is going to use the assessment results?

See, if you take those assessment results and use them to provide useful advice to students on how the quality of their work or learning can improve AND you don’t “count” them toward any type of report card or reporting process then they’re formative; even more formative if the students self-assessed and set their own learning goals.  If, however, you are determining how much progress a student has made as of a certain point in the learning AND are going to include the result in a cumulative report card or other reporting process then they’re summative.  Whether you convert and/or combine the results into another format (letter grade, etc.) is really not relevant.

In essence, if the assessment results from your classroom leave the classroom and inform others about how students are doing then you’ve got a summative assessment.  If the results stay within the classroom and are used for feedback, that’s formative.

Here’s the rub – every assessment format has the potential to be formative or summative since it has everything to do with the function (or purpose) of the assessment and nothing to do with format.

Now, I’m not here to suggest that a short/selected answer assessment is the deepest, most meaningful assessment format, however, in some cases a short/selected answer assessment can be the most efficient means by which a teacher might know whether his/her students have mastery over the key terminology in a science unit.  This demonstrated mastery will allow the teacher to feel more confident about moving on to more meaningful learning opportunities.  What the teacher does with the results will be the determining factor as to whether it was a formative or summative event.  If the results “count” then it was summative; if it doesn’t “count” then formative.  Summative and formative assessments begin with two very different purposes; knowing our purpose for assessing is the first key to developing high quality, accurate, and clear assessment information.

Anyway, the discussion/debate regarding what quality assessments look like is one for a future post. For now, know that every assessment format can be a viable option and it’s what happens with the results that matters the most.

Incidentally, for another recent and interesting take (one which I happen to agree with) on summative assessments, please check out Darcy Mullin’s post here.

5 thoughts on “Function over Format

  1. Tom,
    Please forgive me, but I think that you’ve got your wires crossed on ‘formative assessment’. If you think of formative feedback instead perhaps you will come to a different conclusion. As a teacher, when I give feedback I generally ask questions which help clear or redirect the student’s thinking. I do not advise or say where one is right or wrong, but rather help the student to think through his/her work.

  2. I am a student in EDM 310 at the University of South Alabama. I found your blog on the two types of assessments to be informative. I believe that both of these evaluations have worth for students. As a student myself, I find both types useful. In the formative assessment, I can set goals for myself and monitor my progress. While, in the summative evaluation, my professor will give me a recorded grade. There are many opportunities for assessments in schools. I believe that a teacher should consider the purpose of the evaluation when deciding the type of assessment. I appreciate your summary of the two types.

    • Thanks Angela. I worry that some get caught up in an assessment’s format or appearance and don’t realize that it’s how we use the results that matters more. Again, authentic performance assessments go far deeper than any short answer or selected response assessments can ever hope to go, but short answer assessments can be used for formative purposes. The challenge, of course, in our test heavy cultures is that we may be guilty of over using this format in our schools. Good luck!

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