Formative vs Summative Assessment

Many of you will have received NAPLAN results for your child recently and you may have heard the suggestion that NAPLAN-style testing should be replaced with a ‘formative’ assessment process.  If you’re wondering what this means, you’re not alone.

Robert Starke summed up the difference well when he said, “When the cook tastes the soup, that’s formative; when the guests taste the soup, that’s summative.”  In other words, formative assessment is supposed to track progress and make adjustments along the way, whereas summative assessment looks at the end product.  The infographic on this page provides a good overview of the differences.

One of the main issues that many have with NAPLAN is that it is very much a summative assessment.  Problems with this type of test are obvious – what if your child had a slight flu the day of the test?  What if teachers spend too much time ‘priming’ children for the tests and neglect general necessary academic skills?  If some schools are resourced better than others then how should this be tied to NAPLAN results (if at all)?

Generally, NAPLAN seems to be plagued by limitations (consider for a second how multiple choice questions can skew any valid results) and aspects of it have come under criticism worldwide (even the NSW Minister for Education has repeatedly called for NAPLAN to be scrapped).

On the other hand, many people see that formative assessment would need to rely far more on an individual teacher’s judgement of ongoing student performance, while a standardised test (where students across Australia are compared to each other) is more transparent.

It seems the general consensus is that despite its shortcomings, the merits of having some form of snapshot of child (and, by association, teacher) performance is better than none, so it is here to stay for the time being at least.

It is worth remembering that NAPLAN performance does not affect your child’s grades and that for a motivated teacher if the information is used as intended the results can provide useful feedback.

There is plenty of information (if a little biased!) at the website of the Australian Curriculum and Reporting Authority (the organisation that administers NAPLAN) at www.acara.edu.au.  If you have further questions or concerns, we recommend that you call us for a chat, contact your child’s teacher or school principal.

At Mesh we use a combination of formative and summative assessment to monitor your child’s progress – if you have any questions at all please give us a call.  (We promise our results are a lot easier to understand than NAPLAN!)