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Does summative assessment risk learning outcomes?

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Educators all want the best possible outcomes for their pupils. But there are concerns that established assessment methods could be harming student wellbeing and risking school results. So, do we need to transform the traditional approach to learning? And if so, how can schools go about doing this?

The problem with summative assessment

Summative assessment takes place at the end of the evaluation cycle. This form of student appraisal compares learning against a universal standard or school benchmark. Common types of summative assessment include final exams, end of unit/chapter tests, SATS, GCSEs and A-Levels.

Proponents of summative assessment argue that there are many benefits to this means of evaluation. For example:

  • It helps educators to understand to what degree pupils have understood the subject with the materials they have been taught
  • It provides an easy-to-understand overview of a student’s academic achievement and school results. This is often necessary when seeking entry into further/higher education. Or indeed, when applying for certain jobs
  • A positive grade can help to boost confidence and motivate individuals

Crucially, summative assessment also enables educators to check the progress of students, institutions and the educational program of the country as a whole. And, once armed with this knowledge, gaps can be identified and addressed, leading to improved school results and attainment across the board.

Despite the benefits, there are concerns that summative assessment, when carried out in isolation, could risk educational outcomes. For example, just as a positive result can boost self-esteem, the opposite is also true. Indeed, there is evidence that students who perform poorly are more likely to see their wellbeing suffer. What’s more, negative feedback can result in a reduction of effort in any future tasks, which may not be identified until it’s too late.


“Lower-achieving students are doubly disadvantaged by summative assessment. Being labelled as failures has an impact not just on current feelings about their ability to learn, but lowers further their already low self-esteem and reduces the chance of future effort and success. Only when low achievers have a high level of support (from school or home), which shows them how to improve, do some escape from this vicious circle”

Harlen W, Deakin Crick R (2002) A systematic review of the impact of summative assessment and tests on students’ motivation for learning. In: Research Evidence in Education Library. London: EPPI-Centre, Social Science Research Unit, Institute of Education, University of London.


Similarly, summative assessment is a high-stakes method of evaluation. And, for pupils (and teachers) who suffer from anxiety, the process can be debilitating.

Furthermore, as we know, not all pupils learn the same way, and there is unease that summative assessment works best for those pupils that thrive by learning via a specific teaching style (the transmission of knowledge). On the other hand, pupils who prefer active and creative learning experiences may not do as well. So, school results would only provide a narrow view of a child’s ability and willingness to learn.

Critics of summative assessment also believe this method can result in both teachers and pupils becoming overly concerned with performance rather than learning goals.

Does formative assessment provide the answer?

Formative assessment is a more flexible, informal and ongoing process. Unlike summative assessment, it is carried out while learning is still taking place. With this approach to student evaluation, pupil work is rarely marked or graded. Although, descriptive feedback may be provided.

Common types of formative assessment include impromptu quizzes, one-minute papers, visualisations and doodle maps, lesson exit tickets, etc. Often these are made possible via cloud-based tools. Interestingly, 31.4% of educators believe that online assessment tools will see significant growth in the next one to three years. So this could indicate that a move towards formative assessment is already happening {The State of Technology in Education 2019/20 report}.

Importantly, with formative evaluation, teachers are continually monitoring pupil learning style and ability. So, educators can quickly identify any issues/knowledge gaps, and, where necessary, adjust their teaching methods and target any areas that need work. As a result, this approach can enhance pupil self-esteem while delivering a more personalised learning experience. And, in turn, that can boost educational outcomes.

Is summative assessment still necessary?

Modern teachers understand the crucial role different types of assessment play when it comes to student attainment and wellbeing. And, most would argue that summative assessment remains a necessary part of the education process. But this method of evaluation can’t be done in isolation. Instead, a holistic assessment framework is needed to deliver superior attainment levels.

To achieve this, teachers must:

  • Understand the challenges of summative assessment
  • Understand the benefits of formative assessment, and the potential it has to empower pupils
  • Focus on formative assessment as much as summative, despite the lack of accountability on the former
  • Be provided with more information, training and support on assessment (both as part of their initial teacher training and ongoing career development). This is important because around a third of all teachers, IT managers and SMT members agree that insufficient funds are allocated to training {The State of Technology in Education 2019/20 report}
  • Be equipped with the tools to make the process of formative assessment easy (e.g. ActivPanels, lesson software, etc.)
  • Be provided with the tools (e.g. software) and guidance necessary to create a holistic framework that tracks both summative and formative assessment (this framework should set out what you are assessing against)
  • Be rewarded in performance evaluations for providing creative, formative assessment to complement summative.

Compellingly, by building up pupil confidence, and helping them to learn in a way that best suits them, teachers will benefit from the clearest insight on where a student is relative to his or her peers. What’s more, they will also ensure that each child is better prepared for standardised testing.

For more insight into the world of education, visit the latest The State of Technology in Education 2019/20 report.