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September 2012
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Formative vs. Summative Assessment: Does It Matter?
by Deena Boraie

Assessment terminology has become a minefield because it often obscures distinctions between concepts, which in turn affects classroom practice. Understanding assessment concepts is key to assessment literacy, and teachers who are assessment illiterate can have a negative effect on the quality of education and on students’ learning (Popham, 2009).

Confusion in Assessment Terminology
There are several questions that many teachers and administrators ask:

  • What are good examples of formative assessments and summative assessment tasks?
  • What is the difference between a test item on a formative assessment and a summative test item?
  • Is continuous assessment considered formative or summative assessment?

These questions reflect some educators’ confusion in assessment terminology (Ussher & Earl, 2010) such as assuming that formative and assessment tasks look and are different. Others assume that a formative test is different from a summative test. Further confusion ensues when students’ grades are based on both formative and summative assessments.

Clarifying Assessment Terms

Formative Assessment
Formative assessment refers to assessments conducted while students are learning and is used by teachers to adjust their classroom teaching practices and by students to improve their performance as needed. The purpose of formative assessment is to improve students’ learning and not for grading or judging students’ achievement of learning outcomes.

Summative Assessment
In contrast, summative assessments are used to make decisions about students’ learning and to measure the extent of their achievement of the instructional program learning outcomes. (Popham, 2009).

Therefore, the difference between formative and summative assessment is not in the actual assessment tasks or tools but in their purpose—what we use them for in the classroom. All assessment tasks can be used formatively or summatively. We should not label particular assessment tasks as either summative or formative. If I give students a test or assign them homework but do not count it towards their grade, then these are formative assessments. If I give them the same test or a homework assignment and count it as part of their final grade, these are then considered as summative assessments.

Continuous Assessment
If I carry out continuous assessment by collecting students’ work, assignments, and quizzes throughout the course or after each course unit in a portfolio and I assign grades based on the contents of the portfolio, this is considered as summative assessment and not formative assessment. Continuous assessment is an approach that involves multiple formative and summative assessments throughout the duration of a course or a school year.

The distinction between formative and summative assessment can get blurred. For example, if I allow my students to submit one or two drafts for a graded assignment and I provide developmental feedback once or twice prior to formal submission of the assignment, can this summative assessment be also considered as formative assessment? The answer is that the one or two drafts would be considered as formative assessments because I am providing feedback and students can make changes to improve their work, while the final assignment is a summative assessment because it will count towards the final grade, which will be used to make a decision about the individual student or about the success of the instructional program.

I should note that teachers should be careful about always using the same assessment tasks as both formative and summative assessments. With very little time and a lot of work to do, it is rather tempting for teachers to do so rather than design separate assessments for different purposes. The disadvantage to always using the same assessments for both purposes is that the formative assessments just become practice activities for the summative assessments. Then this may also influence the way we teach—teaching to the test or the assessment rather than focusing on the learning.

Assessment FOR and OF Learning
To better reflect the change in our assessment paradigm where assessment and learning are perceived as inseparable and assessment is viewed as a tool for learning, I prefer the use of the terms assessment FOR learning (AfL) and assessment OF learning (AoL) instead of formative and summative assessment (Stiggins, 2005). AoL is the same as summative assessment and it aims to provide evidence of achievement of learning outcomes for reporting and decision-making purposes. AfL consists of the assessments we conduct in the classroom, both formally and informally, to give feedback and grades to students about their learning; this feedback and these grades do not count toward the final grade. In both AfL and AoL, teachers should have the learning outcomes in mind, or use them as a benchmark, when assessing students (Stiggins, 2008).

Tips for Effective AfL and AoL Practice

Assessment literate teachers should:

  1. set a comprehensive assessment plan that includes both AfL (formative) and AoL (summative) to assess learning outcomes.
  2. select assessment tasks that serve the intended purpose: AfL (formative) or AoL (summative), or both, that are also appropriate for the learning outcomes. Assessment tasks or tools that can be used both formatively (AfL) and summatively (AoL), depending on the learning outcomes, are:
    • performance tasks
    • papers
    • essays
    • projects
    • demonstrations
    • oral reports and presentations
    • quizzes
    • tests
    • homework
    • reflection journals
    • classroom participation  
  3. be careful about using some assessment tasks such as homework, reflection journals, and classroom participation as AoL (summative) because they may not be appropriate for the intended learning outcomes. For example, if the learning outcomes do not include developing students’ reflection skills or classroom participation, then these assessments are more appropriate as AfL (formative).
  4. use classroom instructional strategies such as observation of classroom activities, questioning strategies, conferences, classroom discussions, oral and written feedback, and peer and self assessment for AfL (formative). AfL should not be separated from teaching.
  5. be careful about using the same assessment tasks for both AfL (formative) and AoL (summative) purposes, particularly tests. Otherwise, teachers will restrict themselves to teaching to the test.

To conclude, understanding and appreciating the difference between formative assessment (assessment FOR learning) and summative assessment (assessment OF learning) does matter and constitutes one of the fundamental principles of the knowledge-base of any assessment literate teacher.

Other key assessment principles that teachers should master are quality assurance of classroom assessments ensuring that assessment results are valid, reliable, and fair as well as appropriately preparing students for and interpreting students’ results on standardized external assessments. All teachers should work on continuously developing their assessment literacy knowledge, skills, principles, and practices to help their students learn better and achieve more.


Popham, W. J. (2009). Assessment literacy for teachers: faddish or fundamental? Theory into Practice, 48(1), 4–11.

Stiggins, R. (2008). Assessment manifesto: A call for the development of balanced assessment systems. Portland, OR: ETS Assessment Training Institute.

Stiggins, R. (2005). From formative assessment to assessment FOR learning: A path to success in standards-based schools. The Phi Delta Kappan, 87(4), 324–328.

Ussher, B. & Earl, K. (2010). Summative and formative: Confused by the assessment terms? New Zealand Journal of Teachers’ Work, 7(1), 53–63.


Deena Boraie is the Associate Dean for Instructional Affairs at the School of Continuing Education at the American University in Cairo as well as an adjunct faculty member in the MA/PhD Applied Linguistics program at the Faculty of Arts, English Department of Cairo University. She currently serves as President-Elect of TESOL International Association and as a member of the editorial board of Language Testing, an international peer-reviewed journal.

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