Summative Assessments: Do You Know These Basics?

Classroom assessment is a chance for teachers to put their creative and evaluative skills to the test. The structure and content of classroom assessments are entirely up to you. However, if you’re unsure of where to start, there are some precedents you could follow. We’ve got articles on them all, but to start, we’ll take a look at summative assessments.

Summative assessment in K–12 learning environments is often a test given at the end of distinct periods of time and is meant to evaluate what students know. Authentic assessments can also be used as summative assessments. Summative assessments can be administered at the end of a learning module, grading period, or school year. They are also given at certain points in time that are not necessarily an end point; for example, a standardized test for fourth graders may be given halfway through the school year and is meant to test educational knowledge to that point—not for the entire grade level. Summative assessment differs from formative assessment because educators do not adjust their teaching methods for that particular group of students based on the results. But teachers may use summative assessment to remediate students who failed to garner a satisfactory score. K–12 scholar Paul Black compared formative assessment to a cook tasting soup during the preparation process, while summative assessment takes place when the customer tastes the same soup.

Summative assessment methods are sometimes controversial, but are a very real part of the current K–12 learning environments. Terms like “teaching to the test” exist because of this part of the educational process that emphasizes end results. These consequences, whether good or bad, are considered a reflection on individual teachers, administration, schools, and districts. High-stakes tests, like standardized tests, fall into this category as an example of a blanket summative assessment meant to rank students after instruction based on a common curriculum. Summative assessments happen too late in the educational process to provide teachers with the information needed to make adjustments on a specific learning goal for a specific group of students.

Information gained through summative assessment is helpful to instructors, however, because it can redirect the future of a particular subject or course based on student outcome. Ideally, improvement in summative assessments after a change in teaching methodology or materials encourages teachers to stay on the same path for the next group of students. On the flip side, summative assessment can pinpoint weak areas in the learning process and help the teacher understand what subjects need more attention the next time around.

Many factors, in addition to what students actually know, go into students’ success on summative assessments. Things like the type of test (written, oral, etc.), timing of the test, and other environmental aspects can influence the way students perform on summative assessments, regardless of their knowledge of the subject.

While potentially overwhelming to encounter, summative assessments can be a powerful tool in examining student knowledge. Think about what kind of scope you need to test your students’ learning on, and decide whether a summative approach would work best for you. If the jury’s still out on your answer, check out our other article on the subject: “The Five Major Points of Summative Assessments.”

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