An Introduction to Formative and Summative Assessments in the Social Studies Classroom

“These kids! They never do well on my social studies tests!”

Unfortunately, I have heard complaints like this often from teachers across the nation and especially from educators in our 55-school system. We can’t change the amount of children in our classrooms, so what can we do? Successful teachers have found a solution in strategically using formative assessments to better prepare students. With formative assessments, social studies teachers can make sure that students are demonstrating mastery of learning targets before taking summative assessments. 

What are formative assessments?

According to the Glossary of Education Reform, formative assessment “refers to a wide variety of methods that teachers use to conduct in-process evaluations of student comprehension, learning needs, and academic progress during a lesson, unit, or course. Formative assessments help teachers identify concepts that students are struggling to understand, skills they are having difficulty acquiring, or learning standards they have not yet achieved so that adjustments can be made to lessons, instructional techniques, and academic support.”

One easy way to think of a formative assessment is as any tool that helps a student, teacher, parent, or stakeholder to know where a student is going, to understand where the student is now, and to figure out how to close the gap. Thus, formative assessment refers to the ongoing process students and teachers engage in when they:

  • focus on learning goals
  • take stock of where current work is in relation to the goal
  • take action to move closer to the goal

What are summative assessments?

Summative assessments, according to the Yale Center for Teaching and Learning, “evaluate student learning, knowledge, proficiency, or success at the conclusion of an instructional period, like a unit, course, or program.” They typically include graded exams, tests, and a variety of final projects.


Using learning targets to inform assessments

Both summative and formative assessments require careful consideration of specific targets, or outcomes, for learning. Learning targets are essential for teachers who believe in helping students to reach mastery of skills, content, standards and concepts. Working with learning targets represents a shift in instruction from teacher-centered learning, where the teacher is in “charge” of all knowledge and all learning, to student-centered learning, which includes student agency and student mastery. Effective use of learning targets creates a litany of benefits for teachers, students, and parents.

For teachers, clear learning targets help by…
  • shifting focus from what teachers are teaching to what students are learning
  • serving as a formative assessments
  • promoting activities that demonstrate student learning
For students, clear learning targets help by…
  • providing targets that students can see and eventually hit
  • increasing focus and preventing distractions
  • providing opportunities for tracking, reflecting, and communicating learning at all times
For parents, clear learning target help by…
  • providing understanding of classroom expectations
  • giving opportunities for productive parental assistance
  • initiating discussion and collaboration with students about their strengths and areas needing improvement

Mastery versus compliance

Learning targets lend themselves quite nicely to mastery of concepts. Armed with formative assessments, teachers can make changes in instruction and students can become aware of their own learning and ability to “hit” learning targets, which leads to mastery. On the other hand, students who are asked to simply “comply” with teacher requests to complete work, without understanding of learning targets or the “why” behind the assignment, are less likely to be able to demonstrate mastery on summative assessments.


How assessment fits into mastery and compliance

Many teachers struggle with this pedagogical shift, especially with the need to cover content and appeal to student interest. One sure-fire way to know if a teacher is not yet ready for a shift to student-centered, mastery learning is if they believe their job is to teach state standards and content more than it is their job to teach children. I was at a soccer game just the other day, and a high school teacher was boasting about how make-up work goes in the trash, and explaining how refusing to allow students multiple chances to be successful in any content area made for a “tough teacher.” This shows that this teacher is teaching for compliance and using assessment only for summative purposes.

This teacher then complained about the students’ lack of understanding of the content due to the terrible scores on summative tests. The teacher complained about past teachers, the parents, and of course about the students’ work ethic as reasons for these bad scores. Never did it occur to the teacher that perhaps it was a weak teaching strategy that was causing the students to struggle.

Consider how the conversation could have been different if, rather than providing only summative assessment opportunities, the teacher would have provided multiple formative assessment opportunities, with the understanding that no matter what, students were going to MASTER the required content. If all of the students were demonstrating less than mastery of the content, the teacher would have immediately recognized that not only did they require another opportunity to demonstrate mastery, but a change in instructional strategies would have to be employed or students would never be able to demonstrate mastery. It’s easy to see that formative assessments lead to mastery, and without them teachers are merely teaching for compliance.

Many teachers who believe strongly in teaching for mastery use formative assessments and suffer from an inner dialogue that puts forth the argument that ALL assessments, even summative assessments, are formative in nature and should be used to promote mastery. This is a great inner debate that supports a mastery mindset, but at some point, summative assessments must be used to report exactly what a student knows in that time and place.

Using formative and summative assessments effectively

If mastery is the goal, then the idea is for students to have as many opportunities as necessary to demonstrate their complete understanding of learning targets. When formative assessments are frequently used in combination with targeted learning, stakeholders understand exactly what students know and are rarely surprised by lack of success on a summative assessment. Formative assessments help to increase student engagement and success. They make teacher’s jobs more rewarding because students are more successful. They help parents to understand exactly what learning targets their children are trying to reach. Finally, formative assessments shift instruction from being compliance-based to fostering student mastery of content and concepts.

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