Understanding formative, summative, and interim assessment and their role in student learning

At its core, education is about the teaching and learning process. How do we teach the necessary literacies, content knowledge, critical thinking skills, and habits of mind deemed essential to prepare our children for productive, fulfilling, and engaged lives? How do we know whether students have learned what was taught and to what degree? Formative, summative, and interim assessment strives to answer these questions, providing valuable insights on the degree to which the teaching and learning process succeeded.

That said, there is often confusion as to what types of assessments are administered when, what data they provide, and how they benefit teachers, students, and families. Here’s a quick rundown on the three main assessment types and what they are used for.

Formative assessment guides learning

Formative assessment includes sharing learning goals, modeling what success looks like, and giving clear, actionable feedback to students. By design, formative assessment:

  • Has an explicit connection to an instructional unit
  • Should never be used for grading
  • Consists of many kinds of strategies, and can be as informal as asking a well-crafted question—and using the evidence collected from the question
  • Helps educators guide the learning process, rather than measure student performance
  • Provides students with data they can use to determine where they are in their learning, set goals, monitor their learning progress, and serve as instructional resources for their peers

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
  • Standardized state summative assessments

Despite the array of possible summative instruments, it’s the state summative assessments that often come to mind. Federal educational policy requires data collected from these tests to be used for accountability purposes; other high stakes are associated with summative assessment, such as selection, promotion, and graduation. Legislators also use state summative 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 more evaluative than instructional. For teachers, data can help guide decisions, such as grades for a course, promotion to the next grade, graduation, credit for courses, and more. Summative assessment data also plays a role at the administrative level, where it can be used for planning curricula, determining professional development needs, and identifying the resources and federal assistance a district needs to flourish.

Interim assessment guides teaching and 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 assessment in a formative way to directly guide instruction. When this happens, data aggregation is considered the key difference between formative and interim assessment. 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.

To understand the value of interim assessment, it’s helpful to understand its variety of purposes. One is to provide educators insight into growth patterns in student learning. Growth can be calculated from student achievement scores taken at logical intervals, such as fall to spring, or fall to fall, or whatever makes the most sense for a district. Many educators use a fall-winter-spring schedule when administering MAP® Growth™, our interim assessment. The seasonal system permits enough instructional time between test administrations to allow educators to calculate growth in learning with statistical confidence.

Another purpose of interim assessment is to help teachers make decisions around differentiating instruction. If the assessment is adaptive, those decisions can better serve all the students in the class, not only those who are ready to learn at grade level. Within any given classroom, teachers will have students who are ready to go deep with concepts, be challenged, and apply and expand their learning. Conversely, there will be other students who need to learn foundational concepts and skills before they’re prepared for grade-level concepts and skills. Interim assessment can help identify gaps so all students have the opportunity to grow, no matter where they are starting from.

These missing foundational concepts and skills may be from the previous grade, or even further back. The gaps provide an enormous challenge for teachers whose only information on their students relates to specific grade-level content. For the students who are ready to be challenged, what are they ready to be challenged by? And for the students who are not prepared to learn grade-level standards yet, where are they in their learning?

MAP Growth quickly and precisely targets every student’s level of achievement—including students performing at, above, or below grade level. Interim assessment does more than help teachers instructionally. It also supports students in looking at their own growth: where they are and want to go, what their goals should be, and what an action plan for learning looks like. The other purposes of interim assessment are predictive and evaluative. Its data can help educators predict student performance on important markers and evaluate whether teaching strategies, programs, and curricula are effective.


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