Assessment

What Is the Purpose of Summative Assessment in Education? 

7 Min Read
Summative Assessment hero

We’ve covered educational assessment a lot on this blog, but that’s not surprising given its central role in education. There are a wide range of perspectives on assessment, and often disagreement. For our part, we have identified three types of educational assessments: diagnostic, formative, and summative. Here we spotlight what is arguably the more contentious of the three—summative assessment. 

Although each assessment differs in its use and intent, at times the differences may seem nuanced as they are often affected by the context in which they are used. An assessment is defined as much by its function as its form, and summative assessment is no different in this regard.

What Is Summative Assessment in Education?

The Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing define summative assessment as an evaluation of a test taker’s knowledge and skills, typically carried out at the completion of a program of learning, such as the end of an instructional unit. This type of assessment tends to be more formal, with time limits and increased content coverage. Examples are final exams, standardized tests, end-of-year projects, or other comprehensive assessments that provide a summary of the learner's performance.

Due to the higher stakes (discussed later) often attributed to summative assessments, item quality is monitored closely and adjusted where appropriate. These assessments are also typically subject to greater scrutiny for test validity and reliability. 

What Is the Main Purpose of Summative Assessment?

Simply put, the main purpose of summative assessment is to measure students’ learning outcomes at the completion of an instructional unit, course, or academic program. The key word here is “completion,” indicating the assessing takes place after learning. Diagnostic assessment takes place before instruction and formative assessment takes place during instruction.

The overall purpose of assessment in education is multifaceted, encompassing various goals and objectives that contribute to the overall improvement of the learning process. The different types of assessment—diagnostic, formative and summative—each has its role in helping teachers understand how students are faring in their educational pursuits. Because these assessments are differentiated in nuanced ways, they can often be confusing for administrators, teachers, students, and caregivers. This confusion is probably most prevalent in discussing formative versus summative assessments.

Summative assessment differs from formative assessment in timing, purpose, feedback, and frequency. Another key difference: summative assessment is high-stakes while formative assessment is low-stakes. Below is a comparison of the two types of tests.

SUMMATIVE

FORMATIVE

Timing

Typically occurs at the end of an instructional period, such as the end of a semester, course, or academic year.

Takes place during the learning process, providing ongoing feedback to students and educators to inform and guide instruction.

Purpose

To make a final judgment about a student's achievement. It is often used for advancement, and can be used as a screener for further diagnostic testing, or a baseline to measure growth.

To provide continuous feedback in support of learning and improvement. The main goal is to identify areas of strength and weakness, guide instructional adjustments, and enhance student understanding.

Feedback

Generally less detailed feedback that may not impact the current assessment. The primary feedback is the final grade or score.

Detailed and timely feedback to help students understand their progress and adjust. Often used to address specific learning objectives. Typically not subject to formal scoring.

Frequency

Typically conducted less frequently, often at the beginning or end of a learning period.

Occurs more frequently and can be integrated into the learning process seamlessly, so students are not aware assessment is occurring.

High- or Low-Stakes

Considered high-stakes since results can have significant consequences for students, such as determining eligibility for advancement or remediation.

Generally low-stakes, with a primary focus on supporting student learning rather than making high-stakes decisions.

All in all, summative assessment serves as a dynamic and integral part of the educational process, contributing to ongoing improvement, accountability, and the overall success of students and educational systems. Different types of assessments, including diagnostic, formative and summative, collectively support a diverse set of purposes by providing a comprehensive view of student learning.

Evaluating the Purpose and Benefits of Summative Assessment in Education

Although it's often dreaded by students and considered controversial by teachers, administrators and advocates, summative assessment does have a place in education. It is important that these assessments are part of a thoughtful system and that an understanding exists with regard to its use and, more importantly, its limitations.

But why use summative assessments at all? Here are eight key benefits. These tests can:

  • Measure Learning Outcomes: Summative assessments are used to measure what students have learned and to what extent they have gained specific learning outcomes, knowledge, and skills. They provide a snapshot of student understanding at a specific point in time. This snapshot identifies areas where students have demonstrated skill acquisition and areas where they need further support. In addition, an end-of-year assessment can be used to determine if they have achieved proficiency in a particular domain.
  • Track Growth: By comparing current performance to past performance, educators can track individual student progress as well as the aggregated progress of schools and districts. This allows educators to celebrate growth, no matter how small, and understand the degree of progress made toward achieving educational goals.
  • Inform Instruction: Assessment results provide valuable information to educators about students' strengths and weaknesses. This information can guide instructional decisions, allowing teachers to tailor their instruction to better meet the needs of individual students or the class as a whole. This may seem similar to the purpose of formative assessment and speaks to the point made earlier in this blog regarding how they are defined. Assessments are often defined by their use as well as function. Summative assessment, like formative assessment, can provide feedback for instruction. The difference is the level of specificity and timing. The feedback provided from summative assessment may occur at a much higher level or granularity and only intermittently throughout the year.
  • Guide Curriculum Design: Assessment data allows educators and curriculum designers to evaluate the effectiveness of curriculum materials and instructional strategies. Summative data can be used to explore how well students are learning the standards articulated in the current curriculum, and feedback can be used to make periodic adjustments.
  • Promote Accountability: Assessments play a role in ensuring accountability at various levels, including for individual students, educators, schools, and educational systems. They provide evidence of learning outcomes, demonstrating the effectiveness of educational programs. Students can compare their results against set benchmarks, motivating them to strive for improvement. For teachers, assessment offers data to inform their practice and demonstrate the effectiveness of their instruction. For administrators, it provides insights into how well programs are addressing teacher and student needs.
  • Facilitate Goal Setting: Assessment results can be used to set goals for individual students, classes, and educational institutions. Involving students in analyzing their results promotes self-reflection. They can identify areas for improvement, set realistic goals, and track their progress over time. This fosters a sense of ownership over learning and empowers students to become active participants in their own growth. Goal setting provides direction for improvement and achievement over the short and long term.
  • Support Decision Making: Assessment results are crucial for decision-making processes related to student placement, program modifications, and resource allocation. Educators and administrators rely on assessment data to make informed decisions that impact the educational experience. These evaluations are often used to provide students with the ideal system of supports to address their unique needs or to identify the need for a more thorough diagnostic assessment.
  • Provide Feedback to Parents and Caregivers : Assessment results should be communicated to parents, caregivers, and the broader community. This transparency helps everyone understand and support a shared set of educational goals.

A Balanced Assessment Approach

It's important to note that while summative assessments are valuable for making important decisions, a balanced assessment approach often includes diagnostic, formative, and summative assessments to support ongoing learning and improvement. But the crucial role of summative assessment in an integrated system cannot be overstated. Much of the negative perspectives on these end-of-year tests stem not from the simple act of assessing, but the use of the results and how they are framed to students and teachers. Summative assessment results do not have to be demoralizing or threatening. They can be a useful tool in measuring student achievement that can be leveraged to make the beneficial changes needed to improve learning.

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For more on data-driven assessments and instruction, explore HMH assessments that provide educators a complete picture of student achievement.

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