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Formative vs. Summative Assessments: What's the Difference?

Formative vs. Summative Assessments: What's the Difference?

“Man’s mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions.” ~ Oliver Wendell Holmes

Student learning is a priority for teachers, assistant superintendents, parents, and anybody else with a stake in student outcomes. It’s not always possible to tell how much a student is learning when in the middle of a lesson or a study unit – and after students have completed the unit or semester, while it’s possible to assess how much students have retained, it’s important to do so in a manner that’s accurate and fair.

At Alludo, it’s our mission to provide teachers and staff with relevant and accessible professional learning to empower them to help students. That includes making sure that they understand the differences between formative and summative assessments, both of which are part of our Alludo content catalog. Here’s what you should know about it.

Table of Contents

  1. What is the Difference Between Formative and Summative Assessment?
    1. What is Formative Assessment?
    2. What is Summative Assessment?
    3. What Are the Key Differences?
  2. What Are Examples of Formative Assessments?
    1. Entry and Exit Slips
    2. Quizzes and Polls
    3. Interview/Chat with Students
    4. Self-Assessment
  3. What Are Examples of Summative Assessments?
    1. End-of-Unit or End-of-Chapter Tests
    2. Final Projects or Portfolios
    3. Achievement Tests
    4. Standardized Tests (SAT/ACT)
  4. How Do Summative and Formative Assessments Work Together?
  5. Alludo's Take

What is the Difference Between Formative and Summative Assessment?

Teachers should use both formative and summative assessments in the classroom, so let’s start by defining each and exploring the differences between them.

What is Formative Assessment?

Formative assessment is assessment that occurs in the course of student learning. Instead of waiting until after students have completed a unit of study, formative evaluation happens during the unit and serves as a sort of checkup to track student progress and, if necessary, to get them back on track if they’re not where they should be.

Sometimes, formative assessment may be as simple as observing students in class and evaluating their learning. At other times, it may be more rigorous, allowing teachers to collect concrete information about what students are learning and whether they’re understanding it.

Either way, formative assessment is a powerful tool because it allows teachers to understand where students are, identify those who might be struggling with course material, and provide them with personal guidance when necessary.

What is Summative Assessment?

Summative assessment is assessment that takes place after student learning has been completed. Unlike formative assessment, which can happen on the fly in the classroom, summative assessments must be planned and administered at key points in the school year.

The purpose of a summative evaluation is to measure how much students have retained from what they have learned. This type of assessment must be used in conjunction with standards on a district or state level.

The stakes with summative assessment are typically high and may determine whether a student is getting promoted to the next grade or getting a diploma.

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What Are the Key Differences?

Here are some of the key differences between formative and summative assessments.

Formative Assessments Are Measurements For Student Learning

Because formative assessments are conducted in the classroom and in the course of learning, they are assessments for learning. Said another way, their purpose is to facilitate student learning by capturing a snapshot of student progress and allowing teachers to course correct as needed.

Summative Assessments Are Measurements Of Student Learning

Summative assessments happen after student learning is complete, which makes them assessments of learning instead of for learning. Their purpose is to determine what students have learned and how well they have retained it. They may be useful to provide a big picture view.

Formative Assessments Can Change Students’ Learning Trajectory

One of the biggest differences between formative and summative assessments is that formative assessments have the potential to change students’ learning trajectories for the better. Because they help teachers get a handle of students’ progress and understanding of new concepts, they can be used to reevaluate teaching strategies and meet students where they are to make sure they learn and retain the material being taught.

Summative Assessments Need More Structure Than Formative Assessments

The high-stakes nature of summative assessments requires careful planning when administering them to make sure that the results are accurate and reliable. For example, multiple choice questions must be meticulously written to eliminate bias and there should be clear rubrics that are used during evaluation.


What Are Examples of Formative Assessments?

Formative assessments occur in the classroom in most cases and they can take a variety of forms depending on the teacher’s preference and the tools they have available. In many cases, teachers can use technology to assist them in making formative assessments.

Entry and Exit Slips

Entry and exit slips can be a useful tool for teachers who want to assess student learning and understand how students feel about what they’re learning. Teachers may opt for the low-tech route, handing out slips of paper to ask basic questions about learning. For example, after a lesson about possessive pronouns, a teacher might ask students to list these pronouns. There’s also the option of using ed tech tools such as Padlet or Poll Everywhere to gather student responses.

Quizzes and Polls

Quizzes are a common assessment tool and they don’t need to be lengthy to be useful. Asking even a few questions about course material can help teachers assess students’ progress. Here again, teachers may choose to use apps and ed tech to help them. Two examples are Kahoot and Quizlet.

Interview/Chat with Students

Talking one-on-one with each student for a few minutes can tell teachers a lot about how well students are learning and whether their needs are being met. While an in-person interview may be best for many students, teachers can use tools such as Seesaw and Flipgrid for students who are introverted or may feel awkward sharing their progress in person.


Self-assessments can be extremely useful to teachers. Some of the tools we’ve already mentioned, such as Seesaw, can be used for this type of assessment. Teachers may also employ low-tech options, such as listing concepts on a white board and asking students to put a sticky note where they need the most help.

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What Are Examples of Summative Assessments?

As we mentioned above, summative assessments are more formal than formative assessments and must include some type of rubric to be sure that students understand how they will be assessed. Here are some examples of summative assessments.

End-of-Unit or End-of-Chapter Tests

Administering a test at the end of a chapter or the end of a unit is useful because there are stakes but they’re not as high as they would be with a midterm or final exam. The test should be created using information collected in formative assessments and teachers should do everything possible to help students prepare.

Final Projects or Portfolios

In some classes, assigning a final project or evaluating a student portfolio may be part of summative assessment. For example, an art teacher might review a student’s portfolio of work at the end of a term or semester. A final project may be assigned in any subject. In either case, teachers should communicate the rubric they will use to evaluate the completed project or portfolio.

Achievement Tests

Achievement tests may be administered in the middle of a term or semester or at the end as a final exam. These tests are designed to measure a student’s achievement in a course and should be comprehensive. It’s important for teachers to tell students what material will be covered and the format of the test, and to write questions in a way that’s fair and unbiased.

Standardized Tests (SAT/ACT)

Standardized tests are a form of summative assessment that is out of teachers’ control, at least in terms of the material that’s included and the format and wording of questions. However, teachers can and should help students prepare using practice tests and other tools.


How Do Summative and Formative Assessments Work Together?

Ultimately, formative and summative assessments must work together to give teachers a complete picture of student learning. 

Formative and summative assessments can’t substitute for one another because, as noted above, they serve different purposes. However, they should be used in tandem to help teachers assess student learning in the moment and in the long term. Teachers can and should conduct formative assessments prior to a summative assessment. Doing so will allow them to provide extra help to students who need it and make sure that their students are confident in what they have learned.

Both formative and summative assessments can guide teachers and school administrators as they develop future lesson plans and even assist with district-wide curriculum planning. Formative assessments may lead to revamped lesson plans and can inform how teachers approach student learning.


Alludo’s Take

Here at Alludo, we’ve worked hard to curate a catalog of relevant and useful content for teacher professional development. Assessment is a core topic and our catalog includes 29 microlearning activities related to formative and summative assessments.


We make it easy for teachers to learn about assessment by incorporating elements of choice and gamification into our learning platform. Assessment is a priority topic because we know that teachers who use both summative and formative assessments throughout the school year are setting their students up for success and delivering the best possible learning outcomes.

Provide Your Teachers with the Experience to Use Both Summative and Formative Assessments

Using both formative and summative assessments to evaluate student learning and progress is one of the most effective ways we know to deliver optimal student outcomes. The Alludo Content Catalog provides teachers and administrators with the information they need to assess student progress using both methods.

Want to reach up to 100% PD in your district? See how Alludo can help make it happen with our free professional development platform trial, including:

  • Hundreds of core topics
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