Posted by: darcymullin | August 31, 2011

Summative Assessment…a f*%r letter word?

Over the last couple of weeks I have engaged in discussions on Twitter where people have been arguing against the use (or misuse?) of summative assessments.  I would argue that summative assessments are an essential PART of a comprehensive assessment program based on Assessment for Learning practices.

As educators our goal is to have students learn.  After a student has learned we need to check their understanding before they have an opportunity to move on.  That’s where our good friend the summative assessment comes in…a check in on learning.  If we don’t check how can we be certain a student has mastered a concept?  Sorry, a whim or a gut feeling just doesn’t cut it.

I think the lack of love for summative assessments is due to tests, particularly high stakes tests.  High stakes tests, where teachers, schools, school districts etc. are being evaluated are a misuse of summative assessments.  I would argue further that if we want to understand the depth of student learning that the standard paper and pencil test will fall short as well.  I personally have never been able to create a test that measures anything but a surface knowledge of the concepts and typically don’t allow students to synthesize, apply or demonstrate the relationship of multiple concepts.

A poorly designed summative assessment does not aid in learning, however an open-ended project that expects students to weave together multiple concepts in a way that is meaningful to them is an extremely effective way to gauge whether or not a student has learned and the depth of their understanding.  This type of assessment works hand in hand with Project Based Learning.

Let’s be clear, the intention of a summative assessment should not be tocreate letter grades, quantifiy learning (i.e. %) etc.  Good assessments do not need numbers or a letter grade to check for understanding.  As educators we need to check if students have learned. Well designed summative assessments tell us this and they are integral to the learning process.

Please, give them a little love.



  1. Good post Darcy. We don’t want to lose sight of what we want our students to learn, and summative assessment is a realistic way of checking in. Even though tests may operate at a lower end of Bloom’s taxonomy, they offer very useful feedback (summative feeding into formative). In many circumstances a test can quickly reveal potential problems. And as you say, there are many tools and instruments that we can use for summative assessment, other than tests. Even better, if we clearly and explicitly agree with our students as to what our learning objectives are, then summative assessment can naturally fall out from this in a complete learning cycle.

    There is a big discussion on the BCMTA listserve right now about the loss of provincial exams, and how math teachers have lost a way to compare their teaching to some standard or level of achievement. Again, we can see people’s desire to use summative tests to inform us of what can happen next. In this case, it would be nice if we could use a standardized test for low-stakes summative assessment, with no linking to marks and no need to prep for the test. In my dreams perhaps!

    Summative assessment is definitely a f*%r letter word: none of my spellcheckers recognize it.

    • Thanks for the comments Doug. I often use quizzes, tests etc. as a formative tool, to see if the kids are ready to move on to the next level. That said, when I want to see how much kids learned I don’t want them confined to the parameters of a single test.

  2. Great post, Darcy! I like the way you stress that a summative assessment must be well made to be effective. Also, I think it is important to mention that a summative assessment should be designed BEFORE teaching begins. Loved the post!

    • Thanks for the comment Derek. I have found that often I will begin with end in mind. I think about what I want the kids to be able to produce and how they might demonstrate their learning and then work backward from there.

      • I also believe that the ‘end’ needs to be designed at the beginning. However, we must leave room for flexibility. In the IB, for example, it is essential that we assess where the students are at from day one, though a variety of formative assessment tools. If we stay focused on what we as the teacher designed for the summative assessment without a lot of flexibility it goes against a student centred curriculum and teaching philosophy. Enjoyed reading this post Darcy-thank you.

  3. […] Summative Assessment…a f*%r letter word? ( […]

  4. […] Summative Assessment…a f*%r letter word? ( […]

  5. […] Over the last couple of weeks I have engaged in discussions on Twitter where people have been arguing against the use (or misuse?) of summative assessments. I would argue that summative assessment…  […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: