Formative and Summative Assessments for Effective 21st- Century Teaching


An effective teacher must master the professional skills necessary to deliver a high-quality 21st-century education to their students. In this blog post, I will discuss assessments for an effective 21st-century education.


Assessments have different purposes in the 21st-century classroom. Some assessments are used to monitor and evaluate students learning during instruction. These are known as formative assessments. Assessments that measure what a student has learned at the end of a unit of instruction are summative assessments. Assessment is defined as the systematic collection, review, and use of information about educational programs undertaken to improve student learning and development (Marchese, 1987).


Formative Assessments

Formative assessments are assessments for learning. In other words, they provide a snapshot of where students are in their learning. According to James Popham, Emeritus professor in UCLA’s Graduate School of Education, “Formative assessment is a process used by teachers and students during instruction that provides feedback to adjust ongoing teaching and learning to improve students’ achievement on intended instructional outcomes” (2008, p.5). Research indicates that formative assessment may be one of the most underrated but perhaps essential aspects of student achievement. For example, in an analysis of more than 250 studies, researchers Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam (1998) demonstrate that the positive impact of assessment on student learning:

The research reported here shows conclusively that formative assessment does improve learning. The gains in achievement appear to be quite considerable, and as noted earlier, amongst the largest ever reported for educational interventions. As an illustration of just how big these gains are, an effect size of 0.7, if it could be achieved on a nationwide scale, would be equivalent to raising the mathematics attainment score of an “average” country like England, New Zealand or the United States into the “top five” after the Pacific rim counties of Singapore, Korea, Japan and Hong Kong (p. 61).


Robert Marzano (2010) points out that formative assessments can be either obtrusive or unobtrusive. Obtrusive assessments are when students are aware that they are being assessed. For example, in the middle of the lesson, the teacher stops instruction to administer a quiz to check for understanding. The teacher can use the quiz data to alter instruction as needed. On the other hand, unobtrusive assessments are assessments that are given discretely and sometimes without the students being aware they are being assessed. An example of an unobtrusive assessment is when the teacher elicits student responses during a class discussion for diagnostic purposes. The frequency of assessment is essential. Research indicates that for maximum student achievement, students should be assessed at least once a week, if not more (Marzano, 2006).


Summative Assessments

Summative assessments are assessments of learning and measure student learning and academic achievement in a given period. For example, assessments may be given at the end of a unit of study, quarter, semester, and school year. They are usually high stakes in that they significantly impact grades, and they are typically measured against state and district level standards and benchmarks. According to Robert Stake, Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Illinois, a way to differentiate between formative and summative assessments is “When the cook tastes the soup, that’s formative. When the guests taste the soup, that’s summative.” In traditional classrooms, summative assessments are usually administered as standardized tests such as multiple-choice, true and false, fill-in-the-blank, short and long-form responses, or a combination thereof. Assessments of this type have several benefits. They are easy to grade, especially standardized test items administered electronically or graded with a scantron. They are objective, are easy to create and administer. And they are a fast and convenient way to assess student achievement. There are criticisms of traditional standardized tests, however. One of the most common complaints is that standardized tests only evaluate students' low-level factual recall. These tests reinforce the notion that there can only be one “correct” answer and reduce complex and multifaceted subjects into one-dimensional solutions. As a result, these tests are not an accurate assessment of what students know and are able to do in real-life situations.


For assessments to be meaningful, they must be accurate reflections of the student’s knowledge and competencies. To accurately interpret and communicate evaluations of student learning, the assessments must be both valid and reliable. Validity can be considered the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of assessment, while reliability addresses the ‘how well’ of an assessment (Johnson, 2012). An assessment is considered valid when it accurately measures what it is supposed to measure. A test with a high degree of validity has test items closely tied to the test’s focus. Reliability is the consistency of a test taker’s performance on a given assessment. For example, if a student took multiple assessments on different days and achieved the same score. The assessment would be considered reliable. Many factors can influence the reliability and include selecting specific questions, grading the assessment, and even the day and time the student took the assessment.


Authentic Assessments

Authentic assessments, or performance-based assessments, are assessments that measure students’ “intellectual accomplishments that are worthwhile, significant, and meaningful (Newmann, Marks, & Gamoran, 1996). Authentic assessments are much more appropriate in the 21st-century classroom than traditional assessments because authentic assessments allow students to demonstrate their mastery of content and skills in an authentic, real-world setting. In other words, authentic assessments require students to exercise judgment, innovation, and creativity when applying what they have learned in a safe and supportive environment. Authentic assessments require higher-level thinking skills and more accurately reflect what practitioners in the field do. This is opposed to the low-level factual recall, common to traditional standardized tests (Wiggins & Mctighe, 2005). Authentic assessments are excellent ways for students to engage in complex problem solving and other 21st-century skills using various strategies such as role-playing, debates and simulations, project-based activities, extended research projects, experiments, case studies, and portfolios. Additionally, performance assessments are inherently multidisciplinary because they require students to examine issues from various theoretical and practical perspectives that extend beyond a particular discipline (Lombardi, 2007). However, there are drawbacks to using authentic assessments and include pushback from students who may find them challenging due to the high cognitive demand and student collaboration. Teachers may object to the increased time required to assess student learning and the lack of the resources needed to implement authentic assessments. However, with proper planning and foresight, many of these objections can be mitigated (Murphy, Fox, Freeman, & Hughes, 2017).

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