Thinking beyond the summative assessment task

Countless hours have been spent as teaching teams sit staring at a screen trying to agree on a summative assessment task. The purpose of these summative assessment tasks is supposed to be to check for understanding, to see how the students’ understanding of the concepts explored during a unit of inquiry has developed.

Each one of those sessions may have gone absolutely nowhere, and signifies a misconception that exists in many schools today – that a one-size-fits-all summative assessment task will tell you about each individual student’s level of understanding.

There are seven flaws here:

  • The majority of these conversations are firmly within the realms of “what will we do?” and almost all remain in that realm without ever considering “why are we doing this?”.
  • Many teaching teams teach units of inquiry without ever really figuring out what it is they are hoping students will understand. As a result, their chances of being able to assess student understanding is negligible right from the start.
  • Many teaching teams have a limited understanding of what understanding actually is and so struggle to concentrate or remain motivated during strenuous planning sessions. Often you will hear complaints of being “brain dead at the end of the day” or “I can’t stand semantics” or “we’re just going round and round in circles”. The process of figuring out the enduring understandings of a unit of inquiry is often abandoned completely, done in a hurry to appease those who wish to leave or done by one or two teachers on the team with the intelligence or commitment to make it happen.
  • Very often, summative assessment tasks are designed that actually assess completely the wrong thing by mistake, and the understandings are left untouched  and hidden behind the task itself. Getting all of the students to do a written summative assessment task, for example, is actually an assessment of their writing – not their understanding. Getting all of the students to do a presentation is actually an assessment of their ability to make and deliver a presentation – not their understanding. Getting all of the students to make a video is actually assessing their ability to make a video – not their understanding.
  • Many summative assessment tasks become grand projects or productions that shift the emphasis completely away from the understanding and towards the task itself.
  • The most effective and powerful ways for the students to demonstrate their understanding may only become clear as the unit evolves. Indeed, if we watch our students closely and listen to their thinking, the most powerful and effective ways to assess may actually come from them.
  • Summative assessment tasks are simply too late. If you and the students find out they don’t understand something at the end of the unit (because it really is just about us finishing off the learning, right?) then it’s too late isn’t? If you’re using formative assessment and actually watching the students closely throughout the unit, you should know exactly how the students’ understanding is developing, or not. If you find out at the end… well…um… what have you been doing for six weeks?
  • Not all students are able to express their understanding in the same way.

So, next time you’re sitting around a table with a group of people who are trying to make a one-size-fits-all summative assessment task… perhaps suggest that you don’t bother. Instead, explore the following steps:

  • Ensure everyone responsible for teaching the unit has a good understanding themselves of the understandings you are all trying to develop in the students. You’d be amazed how often this is not the case.
  • Ensure you have created a tool, such as a good rubric, that can be used right from the start of the unit as a way to guide students towards the understandings you are hoping for.
  • Ensure that there is constant, ongoing formative assessment and reflection that continue to give a picture of how each student is developing as the unit progresses.
  • As the unit progresses, share the learning that is going with your teams so that your shared understandings of the unit are strengthened, moderated and challenged.
  • Look for opportunities to help your students transfer what they are learning to new contexts so you can see if they really are understanding the concepts involved.

Very often, the key to achieving all of these things lies in assessing the same way that you teach. If you are teaching in a problem-solving, open-ended style that leaves plenty of space for critical thinking and inquiry… then assessing their understanding will be easier. If however, you are teaching in chunks of discrete, prescriptive learning in which there is little or no space for inquiry, problem-solving  or critical thinking, assessing understanding becomes virtually impossible.


  1. Saigon_Eldred

    You’ve raised some good points Sam, not just problems with summative assessment tasks, but also made some good suggestions as to how to improve them. I firmly believe there must be greater differentiation of summative assessment tasks and more emphasis placed on formative assessment tasks.

  2. Paul Dunbar

    The constructivists at Project Zero write about ‘performances of understanding’. Just as a phrase it’s much richer and more human than ‘summative assessment’, and implies differentiated activities which give an opportunity not just to demonstrate but to further develop understanding. So, for instance, students might generate ideas for further inquiry based upon what they have understood. The phrase ‘summative assessment’ does seem to imply all the wrong things… expectations set in stone.

    • sherrattsam

      Expectations set in stone, dusted off and then put away again at the “end”. We do have to be careful of the word “performances” as we, as teachers, tend to take things too literally… I have seen assessments become, literally, performances as a result!

  3. Ian Harris

    Is there an important difference between on-going or continuous assessment and formative assessment? I’d always taken it that the former is a strategy for managing progress whilst the latter is an essential compliment to summative assessment as a mechanism for measuring distance travelled and hence evaluating the impact of the programme of activities that were undertaken. Summative assessments on their own do seem to be only a small part of the what we are up to but, provided they have been carefully designed and intelligently implemented, they do have an important function. They should be the means by which we communicate our confidence in the learner’s skilful performance of certain behaviours and the security of their grasp of particular understandings. I think that’s why we often stipulate achievements in summative assessments as criteria for certification.
    Just some Monday morning thoughts, thanks for posting a stimulating article, Sam. All the best

    • sherrattsam

      Yes, I agree with you, and the best examples I have seen of those summative tasks that really do “communicate our confidence in the learner’s skilful performance of certain behaviours and the security of their grasp of particular understandings” have evolved during units. They have also evolved in different ways in different classrooms and, furthermore, in different ways within those classrooms depending on the students.

  4. edureflectivepractice

    This is a fantastic post highlighting exactly the conversations that happen at this time of year as we refine and reflect for new programs. It has given me some great ‘food for thought’ to take to our upcoming team meetings. Thank you!

  5. Jen Friske

    I had this discussion with a team yesterday as they were reflecting on their unit and how it has progressed. They are not happy with their summative assessment, and feel that the direction that they have gone with their classes in their inquiries no longer reflects what their summative would be assessing. This is a challenging and demanding time of year for teachers, but I was impressed with their willingness to forego what they had initially planned, and start to think of something new. We didn’t leave the meeting with a fully planned remainder of the unit – but we’ve started, and the conversations will continue.

    I agree with you that there should be more emphasis on the formative assessment as opposed to relying on the summative assessment at the end of the 6 weeks to learn where a student’s understanding went astray. Another fantastic post, Sam. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

    • sherrattsam

      What a wonderful sign that the team came to this conclusion on their own and decided to do something about it. The fact that they recognised the need to rethink how they would assess the unit rather than try to force the direction of the unit back towards their original assessment tasks show they get it!

  6. kath Murdoch

    Thank you Sam for another excellent post. As someone with a strong belief in formative assessment as the most obvious approach to tracking student progress, I was somewhat challenged when I began to work in schools that seemed overly focused on the summative assessment. At the risk of being accused of heresy, I think the concept of ‘backwards planning’ is partly responsible. UBD is often over simplified and the ‘understanding’ that we should be planning for too often becomes a task/product. Starting with understanding in mind does NOT mean we need to identify how that understanding will be demonstrated. In fact – from the position of an inquiry educator this borders on illogical! If we have not yet found out where students are at, what they are interested in and how they are entering the inquiry – how can we possibly determine valid evidence of growth? Formative assessments work much harder for us than summative and are consistent with inquiry philosophy – any agreements about ‘final’ demonstration should be co constructed with students and can be more about celebration and final connections. I will be sharing this post far and wide! 🙂

    • sherrattsam

      Thanks Kath, you have written a sentence that encapsulates everything I am trying to say! “Starting with understanding in mind does NOT mean we need to identify how that understanding will be demonstrated.”

      • Christopher Frost (@FrostChrissy)

        Hi Kath and Sam.

        Sam I love this post!

        Both UbD and Teaching for Understanding (TfU) claim understanding IS (flexible) performance. They argue that we can’t separate the performance from an understanding. They would both probably argue that if we haven’t figured out how the understanding can be performed then we also haven’t figured out what the understanding we want actually is. As such we have much less chance of ever achieving it.

        In my mind that makes sense. But we have to question is understanding all we are after? If it is then TfU and UbD win hands down. Inquiry models focus on learning dispositions and life long learning. These dispositions may well be even more important – learning to learn.

        For right or for wrong, currently our curricula generally focus more on content outcomes and less on dispositional outcomes so to fit those demands understanding curricula win. Time to change curriculum maybe?


  7. abhipypcoordinator

    Dear Sam,

    What a thought provoking post. I agree with you whole heartedly, that teachers often consider the summative as a final assessment of the end product and not the enduring understanding. Each summative, in a way, is a prior knowledge assessment to take the inquiry forward!

    I was so delighted at the scope of what your post could uncover in terms of teacher’s reflections and understanding, that I shared it with all my staff to generate meaningful discussions. Thankfully, most of our teachers seem to be aware of the flaws, but at our school time remains a huge challenge! The second last line in Kath Murdoch’s comment resonated with all of us and after the much diverse discussion and a bit of soul searching, we all realised that it is the connections made of new learning to prior knowledge as well as a celebration of this process, is the best way to mark a Summative!

    Thank you so much for provoking us to think deeper!
    Warm Regards,
    Abhimanyu Das Gupta,
    Primary School and PYP Coordinator
    Pathways World School, Aravali

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  10. Kristy Hamshare

    Excellent post Thank you. I completely agree with changing our thinking (obsession) around a summative assessment TASK. The word itself screams project. When working with teachers I still like to consider first where we are trying to get to with each unit and by doing this, considering what opportunity we will give our students to demonstrate what they have learned. In saying this, it is crucial to have a strong focus on formative assessment as to modify and inform planning as the unit progresses. We need to give ourselves permission to move away from and change the planner to suit the needs of our students as a response to formative assessment during the unit.

    • sherrattsam

      I am interested to know how you make the planner a living, breathing document because, as you say, it does need to change and evolve as our formative assessments reveal the students taking it in different directions. If they don’t take it in a different direction… We have to ask ourselves if it really is an inquiry!

  11. learningtowearthebigshoes

    Hey Sam,
    This post from 2013 has popped up again = and is, as always, timely.
    We just had Tania Lattanzio here for the Network running Assessment workshops and big discussions re: Summative assessment happened – formally and informally.
    Some of my team members get really frustrated as they feel it is an expectation that a ‘Summative’ is completed – when actually they feel they have all the information they need to assess S understanding. I’ve tried to assure them and lead them away from the feeling they need to…but a couple of cookie cutter idealists in the mix.
    I personally hate ( strong word??) the word ‘Summative’….for me it has the resonance as ‘test’ – learn, question, discuss, discover, inquire, learn, connect…..STOP! Now do the assessment. Its just not authentic. Adds far too many stress levels all round and takes precious time. Plus all of the differentiation points and skills you’ve raised above.

    “Starting with understanding in mind does NOT mean we need to identify how that understanding will be demonstrated.”

    I love this..Kath…always hits the nail on the head. UBD: Yes we all do know what we want the Ss to understand, Know and Do….but lets not design a task 6 – 8 weeks in advance. To be honest the kids may have so many better, more creative and authentic ideas than us old fuddy duddys.

    A group of 10 did an online course on Teaching for Understanding (TfU) this Summer. Two things I loved were the Feedback model and the term – Performances for understanding – designing formative learning experiences that will explicitly show T and S understanding. But also explicit in who will assess, what we will look at, and what is the evidence we are looking for.
    Not completely comfortable with TfU for PYP as the units were being written ahead of time rather than Ss directed – but lots of very valid things to take away and apply to our framework.

    Back at school this week – “its Summative week…..” like nails down a chalk board. Will be sharing this with some PLCs…see if we can throw away our cookie cutters.

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  14. Suman Singh

    Hi! This post seems TIMELESS to me. It’s inspiring to read the importance of differentiating the summative task as every child cannot express their understanding in the same way. And I would completely agree with the last post mentioning students could come up with a creative way to showcase their understanding of any topic as compared to teachers.

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