Formative, Summative, Interim: Putting Assessment in Context

Formative, Summative, Interim:  Putting Assessment in ContextSince Socrates, the fundamental purpose of all types of educational assessment has remained the same: to understand and support student learning. However, the assessment process has greatly evolved from Socratic dialogue. Today, there are different types of educational assessments and a menu of purposes for using them. Educators generally agree on three broad categories of educational assessment: formative, interim, and summative.

Formative assessment guides learning. It includes giving clear, actionable feedback to students, sharing learning goals, and modeling what success looks like.

By design, formative assessment:

  • has an explicit connection to an instructional unit
  • consists of many kinds of strategies, and can be as informal as asking a well-crafted question
  • helps educators guide the learning process rather than grade or evaluate student performance

We’ve written numerous blogs on formative assessment which can be found here:


Summative assessment certifies learning. Generally, educators administer a summative assessment near the end of an instructional unit to help them answer the question, “What did students learn?”

All sorts of different assessment instruments are used for summative assessment, including:

  • end-of-unit tests and end-of-course tests
  • performance tasks/simulations
  • portfolios
  • oral examinations
  • research reports
  • state accountability tests

Despite the array of possible summative instruments, it’s the state accountability tests that often come to mind. Federal educational policy requires data collected from these tests to be used for accountability purposes and often ties funding streams to the results; other high stakes can be associated with summative assessment, such as selection, promotion, and graduation. Legislators also use state assessment data to communicate the state of education to the public.

Since summative assessment happens so late in the instructional process, the most effective use of its test data is evaluative versus instructional. For teachers, data can help guide decisions such as assigning grades for a course, promotion to the next grade, graduation, credit for courses, and more. Summative assessment data also play a role at the administrative level, where they’re useful assets for planning curricula, determining professional development needs, and identifying the resources and federal assistance the district needs to flourish.

Interim assessment guides and tracks learning. A wide middle ground exists between teachers’ day-to-day formative assessment of student learning and the formal protocols of state summative assessment. This middle ground offers opportunities—captured under the umbrella term interim assessment—to gather information about many things that are relevant to the teaching and learning process, including:

  • individual and collective student growth
  • effectiveness of teaching practices, programs, and initiatives
  • projection of whether a student, class, or school is on track to achieve established proficiency benchmarks
  • instructional needs of individual students

Educators can use interim assessments in a formative way to directly guide instruction. When this happens, data aggregation is considered the key difference between formative and interim assessment. “The specific interim assessment designs are driven by the purpose and intended uses, but the results of any interim assessment must be reported in a manner allowing aggregation across students, occasions, or concepts.” (Perie, M., Marion, S. and Gong, B., (2009). Moving Toward a Comprehensive Assessment System: A Framework for Considering Interim Assessments. Educational Measurement: Issues and Practice) This ability to aggregate data at critical points in the learning cycle allows interim assessment to have a broader set of purposes than both formative and summative assessment. As a result, interim assessment is the only type of assessment that provides educators with data for instructional, predictive, and evaluative purposes.

We’ve written numerous blogs on interim assessment which can be found here:


Understanding the differences between these three types of assessments is important in determining how best to use the data and insight each one provides.


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