Diagnostic, Formative & Summative Assessments – What’s the difference?


online assessmentIt can be quite confusing, especially for new homeschool parents, to differentiate between the terms used to describe different types of assessments. This post will attempt to give a very brief overview of diagnostic, formative, and summative assessments, how they can be used to inform instruction and how to implement them with your children.

Diagnostic Assessment: “What comes first – the chicken or the test?”

It might be helpful to think of diagnostic assessment as testing that occurs before instruction. A diagnostic assessment or pre-assessment often focuses on one area or domain of knowledge. It can provide educators with information about each student’s prior knowledge before beginning instruction. You can use a diagnostic assessment to assist them in developing lesson plans and providing differentiated instruction to meet children’s needs.

Formative Assessment – “So, what did you learn today?”

Formative assessment is typically embedded within the instructional process. A simplified but perhaps helpful way to think about formative assessment is that it is given during instruction. Formative assessment can be used to determine what needs or topics have to be addressed next with a student. A parent can use a formative assessment to find the gaps between what children have learned and where they are struggling. A formative assessment not only includes tests and homework but can also be an interactive process with the students. For example, discussions with children can include letting them write questions and answers prior to learning a topic. Research shows that descriptive feedback is also a very valuable component of the formative assessment process. Pointing out to children what specifically they did well, including links to other resources and specific suggestions for improvement, can help them reach the next level of learning.

Summative Assessment – “What’s for dessert?”

A summative assessment is typically given to children after a specific point in instruction to measure their understanding of a subject. Some examples of summative assessments include high stakes tests, standardized state exams, district or interim tests, midterms and final exams. Summative assessments can also be used to check their mastery of a subject every few weeks or months. Many textbooks include questions for parents to use for a summative assessment based on the instruction provided. While summative assessments are important, many people feel that the information gleaned from them does not occur frequently enough for summative assessments to inform instruction at the classroom level. This is where formative assessment comes in.

While the various types of assessment can be confusing and their uses considered controversial, it is important to remember that they should be used as a framework to inform the instruction process. Ultimately, the knowledge gleaned from assessment should be used to reach individuals and support them in their learning process.

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