Why are Schools Shifting The Focus from Summative Assessment?

Featured image of students taking assessments in school

Assessing student achievement and abilities is an important part of determining whether instruction is effective or not. Over the last few years, schools and educators have been moving away from traditional high-stakes summative assessments and towards other forms of assessment to determine a student’s skill level. 

This shift, initiated by the COVID-19 pandemic, has changed the way that students are assessed beginning in kindergarten and continuing through to college entrance exams such as the ACT and SAT. Educators have been the main driver behind the shift away from large summative assessments and technology has helped to make this shift happen so quickly. 

What is Summative Assessment and How Has it Changed? 

Summative assessment is an assessment designed to assess learning at the end of a unit, semester, or school year. The idea is that the summative assessment shows the student’s final learning on a given topic. Traditionally, summative assessments include heavily weighted tests or presentations where students have one shot to get the answer right or they lose credit. 

When the pandemic hit in 2020 teachers were forced to rethink how they tested students. Not only did learning loss need to be addressed, educators also needed to ensure testing could continue securely in a remote learning environment when answers could so easily be accessed on the internet. As a result, teachers adjusted by giving more frequent, authentic performance task assessments or discussion-based assessments that required students to truly communicate what they know rather than simply filling in bubbles on a test sheet. The stabilization of remote proctoring software also made it possible to effectively reduce cheating risks to ensure the integrity of assessments remained intact. In the end, teachers found that students showed tremendous growth when testing was embedded throughout the curriculum in this way. 

This also prompted many colleges to rethink requiring high-stakes tests such as the SAT or ACT for college entrance. Over 1,800 colleges no longer require students to submit standardized test scores with their applications. This is in stark contrast to traditional college entrance where students needed a minimum score to be accepted. 

Educators are Rethinking Summative Assessment

Many of the changes that occurred during the pandemic, especially around assessment have stuck around as students returned to in-person learning. This is because working remotely forced teachers and schools to change how they create assessments and evaluate student work. 

One of the major changes includes a focus on small, formative, assessments throughout a unit rather than one large assessment at the end. By doing this educators get a better picture of where a student is at throughout the learning process and they can adjust accordingly. Typically, educators are also implementing universal design principles so that students have many opportunities for success. 

This isn’t to say that large projects or tests have disappeared altogether, they have just shifted from single-day high-stakes events into larger, more comprehensive capstones that allow students to show their skills. When students are allowed to have some agency and choice in the way that they are assessed they can demonstrate knowledge and understanding in ways that may not show up on traditional tests.  

Why is this Shift Happening? 

The pandemic was a major catalyst in causing this shift to happen, teachers were forced to change the way that they operated on a day-to-day basis, including re-thinking assessment to address learning loss. However, the pandemic is not the only reason for this shift, other reasons include:

  • Thinking about students holistically – traditional tests provide a snapshot of what a student knows and how they feel on a given day. The shift away from single-day large tests towards a more holistic approach to assessment means that the focus is on discovering what the student learned and less on how well they test. 
  • 21st-century skill requirements – many states are now requiring that students not only learn skills like math, English, and science but also a plethora of 21st-century skills designed to help students to be successful outside of school as well. Traditional testing is not well suited for demonstrating 21st-century skills which tend to be more performance-based. 
  • Increased student engagement – personalized learning opportunities lead to higher engagement in students and which means that students are more likely to do their best when completing an assessment.
  • Teachers can adjust their teaching — when a single test is given at the end of a unit the teacher gets very little actionable feedback because the unit is over. However, by looking at smaller chunks throughout a unit the teacher can adjust instruction based on how students are learning new material. 

Where the Technology Comes In

All of this can be a lot to think about for educators, however, advances in technology have made the shift to more frequent formative and diagnostic assessment easier for both staff and students alike. Some of the ways that technology supports testing of any type include: 

  • Providing a platform for learning – students need an intuitive platform designed specifically for tying learning tasks to assessments. There are a variety of technology-based assessment tools designed to give students an easy-to-use place to show their learning. A solution like TAO that leverages powerful metadata indexing even makes it possible for educators to align learning standards to assessment questions for deeper reporting insights on student performance. 
  • Integrating 21st-century tools with complex interactions – by utilizing Portable Custom Interactions when developing an assessment, educators can go far beyond simple multiple choice test questions, giving students many different opportunities to engage in problem solving and demonstrate learning. 
  • Interoperable tools – technology-based assessment tools can work with a variety of software and systems including AI-based applications to give educators flexibility in creating assessments. 
  • Increase collaboration – with the advancement of cloud-based learning students no longer need to sit face-to-face to collaborate with other students giving them the opportunities to work with students in different classes, age groups, or even countries when solving complex problems. 

Closing Thoughts 

One of the key shifts in education brought on by the pandemic was the move from high-stakes summative assessments, to more frequent performance-based and small chunk formative assessments. Technology has made this shift possible by enabling teachers to assign students assessments that allow for multiple opportunities for success and more authentic ways to demonstrate learning. 

While many shifts in education can be difficult for schools to manage, there are technology tools available to ease the transition and set teachers and students up for success. Open Assessment Technologies has a suite of online education technology solutions designed to enhance student learning and empower teachers to meet the needs of all students. To learn more about how Open Assessment Technologies can help, click here.


learn more about TAO digital assessment platform to support any type of testing, from formative to summative assessment