Formative vs. Summative Assessment in the Classroom

9 Min Read
WF1520795 difference formative summative assessment hero image

Assessment in the classroom allows educators to ask and answer vital questions: Are students actually learning what they were intended to learn? Are they making progress? How can teachers adapt their instructional tools and methods in order to improve the learning experience and academic outcomes for all students?

Methods for gauging student progress and learning can range from brief in-person teacher observation to sophisticated software programs that measure a multitude of data points.

Along this continuum, a variety of assessment strategies can be applied, including interim, benchmark, diagnostic, and screening assessments. At each end of the assessment spectrum lie two often-used types of assessments: formative and summative.

Many educators are likely familiar with these terms, but may sometimes feel lost in the terminology. How do they differ? How are they applied? And what are the purposes of these two different types of assessment? In this article, we’ll define formative and summative assessment in the classroom, explore the differences between them, and share a few examples of each.

What Is Formative Assessment?

In a nutshell, formative assessment can be thought of as checkups to monitor and evaluate students’ progress during the course of their learning. The word “during” is key, as this type of assessment gives teachers feedback to help them improve student learning outcomes in real time. With formative assessment, teachers have constant opportunities to shift and adapt their instruction.

“Formative assessments guide instruction and are, arguably, the most powerful assessment tool an educator has at their disposal,” writes Peter McLaren, executive director of Next Gen Education and Into Science author. “Similar to a GPS device in an automobile, the teacher can use formative assessment to ‘recalculate’ and move the students back on the right road.”

Formative assessment can take many forms, among them quizzes, class games, on-the-spot evaluations, teacher observation, and exit tickets. For example, a science teacher might design an exit ticket for a lesson on states of matter by handing out an informal end-of-class query asking students to name an example of a solid, liquid, and gas. These “mini quizzes” can give the teacher a quick overview of students’ overall understanding of the concepts taught.

Formative assessment presents an opportunity for the teacher to personalize instruction to the unique needs of each student. Insights gleaned from ongoing formative assessment can guide the teacher to adapt lesson plans and offer alternative methods of instruction. For example, a student who is failing to grasp a concept after completing a worksheet might benefit from a class game that practices the same skills and concepts.

Formative assessment tends to be qualitative; teachers often use them to just get a “quick read” on how well a student is progressing. Even observing students as they work and jotting down notes can be a type of formative assessment.

While formative assessment is often informal, it can still be rigorous. We consider this in our own HMH programs; for example, by using data from Waggle to give highly targeted suggestions for practice and instruction, or by being strategic and specific in teacher-facing formative assessment suggestions in the teacher’s edition of our core offerings such as Go Math or Into Reading.

What Is Summative Assessment?

Summative assessments occur “after the fact,” in that they measure how much a student has learned, retained, and mastered over the course of study, instructional unit, or lesson. Did the students actually learn what they were expected to learn?

Summative assessments can take a variety of forms, including state tests, final exams, reports, presentations, and projects that demonstrate the cumulative knowledge a student has gained over the course of study or during a specific lesson or unit. They are usually aligned with specified and standard criteria, benchmarks, and rubrics, and tend to use quantitative data that delivers results in the form of a scale score, percentage, or grade.

Small-scale summative assessments, such as chapter tests, can guide future lesson planning. Large-scale summative assessment, such as final exams and statewide tests, can be more far-reaching and affect student class placement and district-wide curriculum planning.

Of course, not all assessments fall into the strict categories of formative or summative; interim and benchmark assessments, for example, help educators monitor student progress along the way.

WF1520795 difference formative summative assessment inline image

What Is the Difference Between Formative and Summative Assessment?

If formative assessment measures how a student is learning during a course of study, summative assessment is designed to measure “how much” a student has learned after a unit or course has reached its completion. One way in which the two are commonly distinguished is that formative is considered assessment for learning while summative is considered assessment of learning. Formative assessment can happen as frequently as a teacher needs, and the information gleaned can impact one’s teaching in real time.

Summative assessment provides teachers with an overview of what students have learned throughout a particular unit of study—a semester, a full year, or, in the case of the SAT, all the cumulative knowledge and skills that they have gained over a long span of time. Summative assessment can also help teachers determine if their students are ready to proceed to the next level. Have they gained the necessary knowledge and skills to graduate to the next course or grade?

Because summative assessment can carry high stakes, such as program admission or final grades, it is important to have the assessment be valid and reliable. Multiple-choice items should be written carefully, and written and oral responses should have clear rubrics and consistent evaluation in order to give accurate, reliable measures of student achievement.

Lower stakes does not mean less importance, however. “Although formative assessments have lower stakes, they are really changing the learning trajectory for students,” says David Bain, SVP, Innovation and Analytics at HMH. “They are more important because they change the student’s learning path. Teachers make instructional and programmatic decisions based on these assessments.”

Both forms of assessment have effective uses but can leave gaps in our overall understanding if not used wisely and in conjunction with one another.

“With formative assessment you stand a much better chance of getting a clear picture of what the students learned that day or week, but you won’t be able to determine what they will retain over the course of time from that particular assessment,” says Robert A. Southworth, Jr., EdD, president of The SchoolWorks Lab. “With summative assessment, you can see what they retained, but at that point it is too late to change your teaching and correct the past. Ideally, both forms of assessment should be combined into an integrated system that can deliver learning data all along the way.”

Similarities Between Formative and Summative Assessment

Formative and summative assessment in the classroom can often take the same shape. An essay demonstrating knowledge of the American Revolution, for example, could be assigned in the middle of a unit to give a teacher a clear read on what a student has learned thus far. Or it could be assigned at the end of the semester as a summative wrap-up of everything the student has learned during the unit.

So while similarities exist in the methods used to measure student understanding and progress, we should consider formative and summative assessments in the light of how we intend to use the results. Will the assessment deliver insights that can be used immediately to change a student’s learning experience? Or might the insights be used more broadly; e.g., to look back over an entire course of study or evaluate a student population as a whole?

“The distinction between formative and summative assessment is primarily related to the ways in which assessment results are used, as many assessments developed for formative purposes can be used for summative purposes and vice versa,” according to UC Berkeley education professors Dante D. Dixson and Frank C. Worrell.

Formative vs. Summative Assessment Comparison Chart

Formative Assessment

Summative Assessment

Occurs frequently throughout instruction (e.g., during a unit of study)

Occurs after the instruction is complete (e.g., at the end of a unit of study)

Focuses on assessment for learning

Focuses on assessment of learning

Informs ongoing instruction to improve student learning outcomes in real time

Evaluates how well the instruction worked in the past

Usually covers discrete content (e.g., one skill or concept)

Covers larger instructional units of study such as a full semester or a year

Often uses qualitative (descriptive) data to evaluate a current state based on informal measurement

Often uses quantitative (numerical) data to apply formal measurement and evaluation techniques to determine outcomes

Examples of Formative and Summative Assessments

Formative assessment can be used to guide instruction on an ongoing basis. Some common types of formative assessment include:

  • Exit tickets
  • KWL charts
  • In-class discussions, coupled with teacher observation and note-taking
  • Quizzes
  • Games
  • Polls during a lesson
  • Class projects

Summative assessments can take different forms, but are generally used to “provide information about students’ achievement of academic content standards following a longer period of instruction, such as a full semester or school year,” according to For example, many students must take certain state-mandated achievement tests to measure progress towards grade-level performance expectations.

Other forms of summative assessment can include:

  • Multiple-choice exams
  • End-of-unit tests
  • Final class essays that demonstrate cumulative knowledge

Assessment as Insight into the Future

One final way to think about formative versus summative assessment might be to use the analogy of students in an art class, each painting a picture. As they apply paint to the canvas, the art teacher formatively assesses their use of shading, perspective, color, and so on, giving helpful feedback along the way. The student responds to the feedback and may adjust their painting accordingly.

Summative assessment happens once the painting is complete. The work is done. All that remains is for the teacher to give it a definitive and final grade—one that reflects all the work and artistic progress the student made along the way. While the opportunity to go back and improve the painting is now in the past, the final assessment it receives can still offer valuable insights for the future.


Learn more about how Waggle, the award-winning personalized learning program, addresses formative assessment for all students in Grades K–8.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.

Get a free guide to choosing the right assessments for your district.

Related Reading

WF1953215 Shaped 2024 Blog Post Benefits of Small Group Instruction2

Richard Blankman

Shaped Executive Editor

Superintendent of the Year Joe Gothard

Dr. Joe Gothard, the 2024 National Superintendent of the Year, speaks at a press conference in April introducing him as the new schools chief for the Madison Metropolitan School District in Wisconsin.

Brenda Iasevoli
Shaped Executive Editor

Belonging School Kentwood

Eighth graders enjoy a light moment in Alison Van Dyke's ELA class at Valleywood Middle School in Kentwood, Michigan.

Brenda Iasevoli
Shaped Executive Editor