Which Assessments are Most Worthy of Class Time: Formative, Interim, Summative?

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I’ve lately been surprised by the number of educators questioning the difference between formative, interim, and summative assessments. The difference is as clear as it is muddy! Not much help, huh?

Well, the clear part is this: among the three types of assessment, formative assessment should be used most frequently and always followed up with specific and descriptive feedback for improvement. A good teacher is constantly engaged in formative assessment, using both formal and informal measures.

Formative assessment bridges teaching and learning.

Formative assessment bridges instruction and learning; it requires feedback; it does not end in evaluation.

Some examples of formative assessments are entrance and exit slips, thumbs up/down/450, quizzes, a checklist of teacher observations, and a plethora of other sometimes quick and sometimes more in-depth activities (Wees, 2012). Formative assessment should never be used for grading.

If used correctly, formative assessment develops an effective cycle of communication between teacher and student. The evidence gathered informs the teacher about an individual’s understanding and abilities and provides the basis for an academic discussion that supports student improvement and learning growth. The teacher and the students must act on the evidence identifying not only accuracy but also uncovering misunderstandings and/or faulty reasoning. In the act of reflection followed by rethinking, and redoing, learning improves, thus causing feedback to be among the top 10 influences on student achievement (Hattie, 2011). Formative assessment bridges instruction and learning. Formative assessment requires feedback. Formative assessment does not end in evaluation.

On the other hand, interim and summative assessment are far more evaluative; therefore, they should be less frequently administered. While formative assessment supports the learning process, interim and summative assessment measure the success of learning. Interim assessments may be developed by teachers, provided in programs, or purchased from vendors for grade-wide or school-wide use. That said, interim assessments may or may not be graded in the formal sense. They are typically instructive, evaluative, or predictive. An instructive interim is used to adapt teaching and learning for the group tested but typically for the larger group rather than individualized as with formative assessment. An evaluative interim assessment is used to adjust instruction for future classes. A predictive interim assessment is “designed to determine each student’s likelihood of meeting some criterion score on the end-of-year tests” (Perie, Marion, Gong, 2009).

Instructive interim assessments typically follow a series of lessons as in a unit test. Teachers and students use the unit or chapter test to reward learning and identify misunderstandings of the learning that proceeded. The intent is to “fix” thinking prior to some summative experience. Students are rarely offered the opportunity to relearn and redemonstrate their learning. An evaluative interim is used to adjust instruction for the next set of students. These types of interim assessments raise awareness that the instruction failed to result in learning or missed the target; on the other hand, evaluative interim assessment can identify instruction that hit the target. The teacher or curriculum leader makes notes for future instruction to better ensure learning. Predictive assessments are used to anticipate a student’s performance on high stakes tests. ACT and SAT assessments are tools to predict levels of student success in their later college performance.

Practically speaking, interim assessments may fulfill multiple purposes. As explained above, a unit test may be both instructional and evaluative. Depending on the nature of the class, a unit test may have the ability to be predictive of semester test success; however, most teachers don’t have the time to use the data for predictive purposes. Instead, the test focuses on instruction: this is what must be learned or corrected in order to better perform on the end-of-term assessment. Unfortunately, many schools purchase interim assessment programs that steal standards-aligned instructional time by failing to measure what is actually being taught in the classroom. Or worse yet, standards-aligned instructional time is stolen to prepare students for locally purchased interim assessments that are unaligned or misaligned to state and/or disciplinary standards.

Summative assessment, by its very nomenclature, is final. In the classroom setting, summative assessment is typically calculated into a student’s reported grade for a specific term of instruction. On a national level, summative assessments are used to evaluate schools and districts rather than individual students. Indeed, national assessments report individual students performance levels– exceeds, meets, approaching, doesn’t meet–but these outcomes are not part of the a student’s school grades.

When we focus on classroom use of assessment, the lines between assessment types can become blurred. Interim assessment may well become formative or summative assessment. Whether students are taking a semester test in history or a state test for the fourth grade, they typically do not return to improve on the performance. That finality makes those assessments summative. However, if a teacher makes a professional decision to allow students to use a what was an interim assessment (chapter test or unit test) as a true opportunity to learn, the teacher may provide feedback and allow the student to retake or redo the assessment or portions on which the student flailed. That said, the teacher must provide quality feedback and not just right answers and the redo or retake must be a different form of the assessment measuring the student’s proficiency using a like but not identical item.


Hattie, J. (2018). Interactive Visualization (webpage).

Perie, M., Marion, S., & Gong, B. (2009). Moving toward a comprehensive assessment system: A framework for considering interim assessments. Educational Measurement: Issues and Practice, 28(3), 5–13.

Wees, D. (2012). “Fifty-six different ways to gather evidence of student achievement.”

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