Summative Assessment: What Teachers Need to Know

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Weeks or months of study in a classroom generally culminate in a summative assessment. This refers to a test that evaluates a student’s comprehension of the material covered thus far. While other measures, such as homework and quizzes, cover potential or progress made, the essence of a summative assessment is more black and white — either the material has been learned (and taught) or not. As a result, these necessary but controversial assessments bring a lot of stress to both educators and students. Below are some of the key points about end of year assessments and tips for success.

Pros

Though they aren’t necessarily fun for teachers and students, summative assessments have a lot of advantages. They provide motivation for students to study and pay attention in class, particularly as they get older and grades become a major indicator of success in college or the working world. They also give great insight to teachers: if none of the children in a class score above a 2 or 3 on an AP exam, it is much more likely to be the result of poor or off-topic instruction than a class of students unable to complete the work.

Cons

Precisely because summative assessments reflect so closely on teacher performance, many instructors are accused of “teaching to the test.” In other words, if a state test is known to heavily favor anagrams or analogies, students may be asked to spend hours drilling those exercises instead of reading and writing to grow their vocabularies naturally. Conversely, no assessment is perfect, so even students with excellent knowledge of the material may run into questions that trip them up, especially if they get nervous under pressure. As a result, summative assessment is not always the most accurate reflection of learning.

Measurements and markers

Summative assessment gives students a level, usually numerical, and placement in which they can be compared against both other students and the standards for their grade. This is most commonly seen in:

  • Literacy tests
  • College entrance exams like the SAT or ACT
  • End of year school, county, or statewide testing
  • Special program learning, such as Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate

Performance is often shown both in percentage of questions answered right, and by comparing performance with the rest of the class, state, or nation. A student scoring in the 90th percentile, for example, completed more questions correctly than 90 percent of other test-takers. This sort of competition indicates benchmark performances and helps admissions officers make informed decisions, but it can also cause undue anxiety for students who struggle more than their peers in certain areas.

Unique adaptations

There are non-traditional ways to use summative assessments to enhance the learning process. Many teachers find it useful to:

  • Create the test after the learning plan. Though it may seem obvious, the best evaluation covers the material the instructor and curriculum meant to emphasize. If, for instance, a teacher holds a final exam in literature to the constant standard of “Does this student read deeper into the text?” he or she will have crafted a summative assessment that stays on point with learning goals.
  • Offer different options. Standardized state and national tests have very little room for re-imagining. A classroom final, however, could be given as a visual/audio presentation, a long-form test, or an individual essay. By allowing students to explain the material in a medium they feel comfortable with, teachers get an accurate picture of their understanding.
  • Move it out of the classroom. Unfortunately, many students decide early on that they are not strong in academics. By making the final resemble a real-world application, much of the pressure and stigma is removed, along with the temptation to plagiarize. Have biology students identify animals in nature or at a preserve, or have business students create job descriptions and resumes. This style of assessment can cover a broad range of material, and more closely emulates performance reviews and projects in a career field.

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