The formative in summative assessment

21 10 2012

I’m taking an online course on Assessment given by the University of Oregon with an E-Teacher scholarship from the Regional English Language Office, Brazil. It’s been a fantastic opportunity not only to refresh my knowledge of a topic that has attracted me ever since I became a Course Supervisor back in 1991, but also to experience firsthand what it’s like to take an online course and observe and learn from how the instructors maximize student participation and interaction.

A recent discussion that has aroused great interest among all course participants is the distinction between summative and formative assessment and the realization that even summative types of assessment can gain a formative color depending on what is done with the results.

According to Coombe et al. (2007, p. xix),

Tests or tasks administered at the end of the course to determine if students have achieved the objectives set out in the curriculum are called summative assessments. They are often used to decide which students move on to a higher level. Formative assessments, however, are carried out with the aims of using the results to improve instruction, so they are given during a course and feedback is provided to students.

Similarly, Brown (2004) points out that formative assessment focuses on the process of “forming” students’ competencies and skills and aims at leading them to continued growth. He also reiterates the importance of feedback in formative assessment. Conversely, summative assessment measures, or summarizes, what has been learned at the end of a course or unit of instruction. It is about looking back and taking stock of what has been accomplished. As Wren (2008) points out, the main distinction between the two types of assessment lies in the purpose of the assessment and how the results will be used.  Again, the idea of feedback as the distinguishing element of formative assessment is evident. A good assessment program is one that matches the purpose and type of the assessment to the decisions made and the curriculum adopted (Brown, 2012), one that, consequently, adopts a good balance between formative and summative assessment, perhaps with more emphasis on the formative than the summative.

Traditional tests are obviously not the only types of assessment that should be employed, especially in a communicative classroom. Nevertheless, for practicality reasons, they are still widely used. Classroom tests aimed at measuring how well students have achieved the proposed learning outcomes can be of two major kinds: progress tests and achievement tests. Progress tests are typically administered during the instruction period, are shorter and narrower in scope, and are used to inform future teaching, so they can be considered formative. Achievement tests, on the other hand, are typically summative in that they are administered at the end of a course and are usually longer and with a wider scope than progress tests (Coombe et al., 2007; Brown, 2004). Surprisingly, though, Wren (2008) and Brown (2004) propose that even summative types of assessments such as achievement tests can be given a formative stance. After all, as Wren noted, it is all about how the results will be used. Thus, if the results of summative tests are used to inform students of their strengths and weaknesses so they can plan their future learning paths, we are using these summative tests formatively: “Summative assessment results can provide a positive learning opportunity” (Wren, 2008, p. 5).


Courtesy of


Here are some examples of when summative tests can also be formative, even if just a little:

–         When there is a planned moment after the test in which students have the opportunity to review their tests, identify their strengths and weaknesses, and learn from their mistakes (Brown 2004);

–          When students practice answering the same types of items that will be present on the test and have the chance to receive feedback on their mistakes, or when they go over the materials and engage in self-assessment of what they know well and what they need to focus on in preparing for the upcoming test (Wren, 2008);

–          When a student hands in a test and the teacher goes over it and shows the student where he/she made many mistakes and gives him/her a chance to go back and redo a test item;

–          When students receive remedial help and have the chance to redo a test that they did poorly on;

–           When the teacher in the next semester /term/module revisits the items covered on the last test to make sure students are ready to move on in their learning and deal with new content.

If  we consider that “every language course or program is always the beginning of further pursuits, more learning, more goals, and more challenges to face” (Brown, 2004, p. 30), it is not only possible but also desirable that, whenever possible, we teachers try to find a formative element even in the most summative types of assessments we use.

Would my interlocutors have other suggestions to add to my list above?


Brown, H.D. (2004). Language Assessment – Principles and Classroom Practices. White Plains, NY:   Pearson Education.

Brown, J.D.  (2012). Choosing the right kind of assessment. In C. Coombe, P. Davidson, B.O’Sullivan,& S. Stoynoff (Eds.), The Cambridge Guide to Second Language Assessment (pp. 105-12). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Coombe, C., Folse, K., and Hubley, N. (2007). A Practical Guide to Assessing English Language Learners. Ann Arbor, Michigan: The University of Michigan Press.

Wren, D. (2008, November 6). Using Formative Assessment to Increase Learning. Research Brief: Report from the Department of Research, Evaluation and Assessment.  Virginia Beach City Public Schools. Retrieved October 15, 2012 from x=009156061886103500874%3Amfayemlraqy&cof=FORID%3A11&ie=UTF-8&query=%22using+formative+assessment%22&sa.x=0&sa.y=0




3 responses

31 10 2012
31 10 2012
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23 02 2016

Thanks for sharing!

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