I’ve written a lot on the importance of formative assessment recently and feel pretty clear in my own mind of its efficacy. In contrast I see summative assessment as existing only as an external measure of success or failure. I know it exists, and I know it’s fairly important to my students’ life chances. It’s also one of the primary means by which my professional practice is judged, so I’d better take notice of it. This seems like a necessary evil, not something to be celebrated.

Cristina Milos and Jennifer Borgioli have challenged this view and asserted that actually, summative assessment has its place in the classroom and fulfils a useful purpose.  Cristina says that summative assessment “need not be constructed in terms of pass/fail” and Jennifer suggests that “quality assessment is about balance” and using the right tool and the right time. She also says that the problem with using formative assessment to evaluate whether learning has occurred is that it is “unethical to evaluate a learner while they are still learning”.

Now, I consider myself to be an open minded chap, so it seemed reasonable to check out what’s been written on the subject to see if there is merit in their views.

Firstly, let’s define our terms. Summative Assessment I mean the formal testing of what has been learned in order to produce marks or grades which may be used for reports of various types. This is different from Formative Assessment, in which the emphasis is on on-going assessments of different types used to judge how best to help pupils learn further. Have I got this right? I’d be very grateful if anyone would like to (politely) set me straight.

Research suggests that while summative assessment can be motivating for some students, it has a negative effect on others:

  • After summative assessment, low-achieving pupils had lower self-esteem than higher-achievers, whereas there had been no correlation between self-esteem and achievement before
  • Repeated practice tests reinforce low self-esteem of low achievers
  • When results of summative assessment are presented as primarily relating to individual pupils the negative effect on low-achievers is more pronounced than when the results are for evaluation of school or authority standards.
  • Secondary age low-achievers may deliberately underperform in summative assessments because they are failing anyway
  • Summative assessments can be limiting for the most able
  • “Big bang” tests cause anxiety in pupils, especially girls and widen the gap between high and low achievers’ motivation
  • Summative assessment promotes “extrinsic” motivation, in which pupils respond to the promise of some kind of reward rather than “intrinsic” motivation in which they perform because they are interested and want to do the work
Summative assessment can also produce problems for the curriculum and with teaching:
  • The curriculum can be narrowed by “teaching to the test” which can take away from curriculum content
  • It can produce distortion in terms of teaching techniques
  • Summative test questions may not be framed in the same way as those preferred for formative assessment
  • Teachers can spend a lot of time on summative assessment which does not directly improve pupils’ learning
  • Teachers sometimes adopt a more didactic “transmission” style of teaching which disadvantages those who don’t respond well to it
Now, I accept that many of these problems can be planned for so that their effects are minimised if not avoided all together. Here are some of the ways to avoid some of the pitfalls:
  • Intrinsic interest in tasks can be encouraged
  • Students’ awareness of learning goals rather than test performance goals can be developed
  • A wide range of types of understanding can be included in summative assessment
  • Some formative assessment evidence may be included in summative reports
  • Peer- and self-assessment could be included in summative records
  • Tests don’t need to be formal written assessments
  • The comparison of individual pupils on the basis of scores can be avoided
  • Summative tests can be placed before the end of a teaching block so that there is some opportunity for follow-up based on the results, and even reassessment
  • Summative judgements can be made on the basis of a variety of tests (varied both in form and content)
  • Students could carry forward lessons from assessments even into the next school session (eg in the form of a copy of their school report)
  • Feedback can be given to pupils in terms of the learning goals rather than just a test mark
  • Tests might be devised to assess separate elements of the course separately
  • In practising for summative assessments, pupils can make up and answer their own questions.  (Research has shown this to be an effective strategy)
  • Tests can be timed according to pupil readiness rather than leaving them to the end of the block of work
  • Summative assessment can be presented realistically, as being limited
  • Tests can provide evidence for evaluating courses and teaching approaches
  • Whole-school discussion of such assessment principles can be helpful
The problem is though that these measures, whilst all very worthy, only provide a way to cope with something that is essentially damaging. Look how tentative the language is: the potential harm of summative assessment can, could, might be ameliorated by conducting it in a more formative way. If that’s the case, why bother? Why not simply ensure that all assessment provides opportunities for formative feedback which enable the teacher to redirect teaching and the learner to make progress?
Maybe I’m being dense but I really struggle with the idea the summative assessment is useful for anything other than providing data on students’ (and teachers’) success and failure. I’m not being bombastic and I like to think that I don’t deal in “vague rhetoric” as Cristina accuses me. In fact I’m desperately keen to be shown the error of my ways and will respond positively and graciously to any comments. Over to you.