Good Cop – Bad Cop: A Distinction Between Formative and Summative Assessment

If formative and summative assessments were playing the game Good Cop/Bad Cop, formative assessment would be the Good Cop.  In fact, formative assessment is the kind of cop that stops you for speeding, figures out why you were speeding and then helps you strategize on how to develop skills to limit your speeding and increase safe driving habits.  Oh and there is no ticket or other punitive action with a formative assessment.

Formative assessment is used to monitor student progress while the student is still in learning process.  Formative assessments focus on student growth, while summative assessments evaluate students at the end of learning and are often high stakes – determine whether a student passes or fails.  A summative assessment is the bad cop and simply a way to penalize a student rather than assist a student on his or her way to mastery.

Formative assessments are super effective and when used correctly are an essential tool in education.  A formative assessments is NOT a gotcha test.  It is a way for educators to measure where a student is in his or her learning, and then drive instruction and inquiry accordingly.  Many teachers are formatively assessing their students all the time.  For example, when a teacher circles the room to look at student work, she is formatively assessing.  When a teacher is conferencing with students at his desk, he is formatively assessing.

Here are a few types of formative assessments we can all use in our classrooms.

1.    Observations.  Yes in a world of quantitative analysis and numbers, observations can come in handy.  Simply observing students over time can paint a picture numbers cannot.  Noticing a student’s irritability before reading aloud may tell you he doesn’t like it or that it makes him really anxious.  Seeing a student sit up a little straighter when getting ready to take notes may tell you she is purposeful in her preparation and studies.

2.    Conversations.  It’s surprising what we learn from students by simply asking them.  Too many times we make decisions based on what we think is the most effective thing.  Asking students for feedback is an awesome way to construct activities and lessons based on what the students want.  You will be surprised at the increased engagement levels.

3.    Student Self-Evaluations. This is an AMAZING tool.  When students self-assess it is a catalyst for self-reflection, which is the first step in transformation.  When examining these self-evaluations, teachers can gain perspective on how the students feel about themselves and their learning.  Self-evaluations can be used before lessons in the form of a few questions.  For example, ask students their current knowledge on the concept you are about to cover.  Maybe they know nothing.  Then have them self assess after the lesson and examine growth together. Students love to talk about themselves so this is a win-win for teachers and students.

4.    Artifacts. Student work tells us a lot.  Most of us look at and grade student work but we often miss important aspects.  For example, what does a student’s choice of color say about him or her?  How does he or she write sentences and transitions?  Follow-up conversations must be used along with the artifacts so the teacher is privy to exactly what the student meant or intended.  A great way to use artifacts is to collect, analyze and then have a conversation with students one-on-one about their artifacts.   Get an idea of what the artifact says and then let the student walk you through it.

5.    Exit Slips.  As the lesson concludes, hand out small sheets of paper and have student give you feedback on what you are trying to measure.  For example, if your students have completed a lab, perhaps a 3-2-1 exit slip would be helpful.  Click here for an example 3-2-1 exit slip.

5.    Chapter Tests.  Usually chapter tests are summative; meaning the teacher just records the grades of the chapter test in the grade book and moves on to the next chapter.  However, chapter tests can always be formative if the teacher uses the scores of a chapter test to inform his or her instruction.  For example, if 30% of the students in the class miss the same question, the teacher should use that information to guide instruction.  Maybe the teacher puts those kids in a cooperative group to further explore that topic.  Maybe she asks a student who has mastered that concept to help that group of students.  Whatever action the teacher takes based on that formative assessment, the teacher is allowing the students to master the concept in their own time.

The trick is to actually do something with formative assessment information.  Putting grades in the grade book just to fill a column is a bad education practice.  The grades in that column should change as students gain mastery.  Grades in that column should never be static; they should be as dynamic as the learning process and the students themselves.

Also, make the time to reexamine as a class what the formative data says.  Discuss and share it with students. For example you may say, “I saw that you all still had questions regarding using key words in your writing.  Let’s set some time aside today to revisit the concept.”

Remember you can always turn a summative into a formative by looking at the results of the summative test, constructing and implementing instruction according to what you find, and then allowing students to retake the exam.

Once we realize formative data is the most important data in our practice, we will start demanding more time for these types of exercises.  If we are truly educating students, all we ever need are formative assessments.




4 Responses

  1. karen

    Took me forever to remember the difference until I looked at the words. Formative, forming and Sumative, summarizing. Simple but effective. It is sometimes the little things that make it less confusing.

    • Brenda Miller

      The formative assessments I have seen look like the old values clarification exercises or as in forming your child’s attitudes, values, beliefs and behaviors.

  2. Jim Oase

    …NAEP test scores gathered since 1970 have not statistically change. PISA scores indicate our nation is in an educational decline compared to the world even though our level of spending per student has more than tripled. Education turned into a $5 billion annual business with a captured market, a monopoly that is controlled by volumes of regulations and structured process.

    Historically when people are subjected to intense regulation and structure, as if groups rather than individuals, they develop a black market. Individuals gaming the system. Schools are intensely regulated and structured. For many it’s not until after K-12 graduation that individuals begin to train their life long passions. For others there is the black market of education, home schools, drop outs, self study.


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