Is Summative or Formative Assessment the best method of assessing pupils?

Essay, 2014

31 Pages, Grade: 72


Sam Curran SECC 6001 Current Issues in Education

The analogy of whether weighing a pig makes it fatter seems to refer to the debate over whether assessment is an effective way of raising standards. This introduces the dichotomy of whether summative or formative assessment is the most useful tool for raising standards. There may also be variables which impact on the success of assessment procedures: one of the central factors may be the role of the subject leader in assessment policies, although the ethos of the school and socio-demographic factors of the area it is situated in may also be influential. ‘Weighing the pig’ seems to be polysemous in that there are multiple ways of raising standards, some of which do not use any kind of assessment. This essay will examine the above factors and attempt to come to a tentative conclusion about the best way to raise standards.

One definition of a 'standard' is that it refers to the intelligence that can be achieved in and measured through summative exams and tests. An alternative, more balanced perspective could be that intelligence can be developed and observed, often by formative assessment strategies. It could be conjectured that synthesising these viewpoints to produce a model, where formative and summative assessment are used simultaneously, would be more beneficial to pupils. However this ‘measure’ of a standard does not account for the informal, hidden curriculum where a child’s Spiritual, Moral Social and Cultural (SMSC) development is fostered through the teacher modelling positive values to their pupils. Ofsted (2004; 2012 a) further recognises the significance of a child’s pastoral development and well-being by highlighting the importance of helping children grow into confident individuals who will make a positive contribution to society (DfES, 2003). Arguably, standards could be holistically raised if all of these viewpoints were amalgamated together in the approach to assessment; this may in turn induce an environment where pupils are developed as individuals, even in a subconscious manner (Martin, 1983, p.125).

Ofsted (2012 a) promotes the notion of schools being reflective and critical of their own practice and advocates using the results of their inspections as a strategy to do this. The summative grade they receive from the inspection could be used to make a formative assessment of their progress. Ofsted (2012 b) highlights performance management of teachers and a heavy accountability in terms of pupils’ attainment as being the main factors involved in making such an assessment. However, OECD (2005) identifies that teachers experience a lot of stress and that retention rates in the profession are decreasing. Such a focus on teacher performance may have a negative impact on teacher morale and attainment. A strategy to overcome this could be strong and decisive leadership. DCSF (2008 a) emphasises the role of the Head of Department (HOD) in establishing good working relationships with staff and having the responsibility of monitoring the success of teaching and learning. Nevertheless, Ofsted (2012 a) articulates the value of the subject leader having the necessary rigour and subject expertise to undertake such tasks. An absence of this knowledge could result in more subtle subject-specific improvements being overlooked (Ofsted, 2012 a). Arguably, it is the HOD’s responsibility to foster effective working relationships with staff as part of their job specification (House of Commons, 2012). It seems a balance of good working relationships and effective monitoring from senior staff is crucial to raising standards. DfE (2010 a) surmises that this could have wider significance and initiate enhanced professional collaboration. It could also facilitate cross-curricular themes and initiatives, although teachers may not be sufficiently prepared emotionally or pedagogically to do this (Saunders et al., 1995, as cited in Savage, 2011, p.59). A contributing factor to the success of this approach could be the teacher’s ability to make links between topics and develop a connectionist orientation (Askew et al., 1997). Analysis of the use of the inspection evidence seems to indicate an extra dimension that affects progress: the schools’ ethos. Pring (2005) suggests the moral and altruistic aspect of education is of great importance: if teaching is seen as a vocation and staff are intrinsically motivated through a sense of altruism, where they give of themselves to help other people, then productivity and thus standards may increase (Grant, 2008, p.50).

Stagnation may occur even if standards are good. Ofsted (2011) concluded in their Annual Report of Education that over 1000 schools of the 6300 they inspected had consistently achieved ‘satisfactory’ in inspections with no sign of progressing to ‘good’. This seems to indicate that some brighter pupils are not being sufficiently stretched, particularly in key subjects such as Mathematics and English: more than 60% of pupils who achieved a Level 5 in primary school in those 2 subjects failed to gain an A or A* at GCSE in either of them (Ofsted, 2008; 2012 b; 2013).

Identification of Gifted and Talented learners may be both formative and summative. Students may have an enthusiasm to learn and an intellectual curiosity as well as having exam results in the top vigintile (5%) of the school population (DCSF, 2008 b). If children are identified as being able early through summative exams such as SATS and Cognitive Ability Tests (CATs) then provision for these types of learners may be more effective, with the possible additional benefit of easing the transition to secondary school which sometimes places considerable stress on pupils (DCSF, 2008 c). The CAT test may be particularly useful in identifying G and T students as it is independent of content learnt in the classroom and tests students’ reasoning abilities (Strand, 2003). A high CAT score may indicate the ability to think in an abstract or logical manner and may even highlight whether a child is an independent thinker, both of which are key characteristics of a G and T student (Tunnicliffe, 2010). Furthermore, CATS can also be utilised as an estimate of future progress in examinations like GCSEs. However, the weak relationship between the CAT and the National Curriculum may mean other factors such as SATS results and strong leadership are more important in recognising G and T pupils. Furthermore, the attitude and well-being of the pupils may need to be considered: CAT tests are normally administered at the start of a child’s secondary school career when they may be more vulnerable and prone to stress which could result in a test score which is below expectations (GL Assessment, 2008).

DCSF (2008 d) advocate giving able learners detailed constructive feedback as they are likely to display atypical response behaviours by analysing it in detail and reacting to it in an appropriate manner which most other pupils do not do (Faultley and Savage, 2007).

This may take form of a ‘commentary’ between the pupil and teacher which could also involve parents in the dialogue. Involving parents may be advantageous if it results in them gaining a more detailed knowledge of how their children are assessed and working collaboratively with the teacher to ensure a more personalised learning experience for the pupil (Black, 2003). However, the weakness of this approach is that it is largely subjective and relies on the teacher’s formative assessment of how pupils perform in the lesson, although it could be argued they have the pedagogical skills to do this as part of their training in meeting Qualified Teacher Status (DfE, 2012 c). Furthermore, this technique may help identify ‘submerged talent’, pupils who are gifted, but are not recognised as such, thus seeming to validate a teacher’s professional judgement (Smith, 2006).

This strategy may be even more effective when used parallel to rigorous and continuous summative assessment such as module tests and homework. This could allow progression to be tracked and for the subject leader to play more of an active role in liaising with teachers to ensure that all pupils are making the required amount of progress. However, too much target setting and focus on attainment may actually be detrimental to children’s performance: gifted students are more likely than any other group of students to develop existential depression due to positive disintegration (although in this model stress is viewed as an opportunity for growth) and increased emotional awareness (Dabrowski, 1970; Daniels and Piechowski, 2009). Raising a gifted child’s self-esteem may allow them to cope with the demands of school better. Kagan (1995) advocates using group and collaborative activities to boost pupils’ confidence and allow better integration in the classroom. This may not account for pupils who are quiet and may not contribute much to discussions although the tasks could be scaled down to partner activities such as think-pair-share (Kagan, 2001). Although explicit strategies such as praise may make a gifted child more aware of their abilities, co-operative activities could have the duality of improving gifted children’s esteem whilst helping other children learn.

Another way of improving able pupils’ well-being could be through Supplemental and P eer-Mediated instruction where pupils teach other. This could be particularly useful in subjects like Mathematics and Science where children historically struggle (Burmeister, 1996, p.23). Vygotsky (1978) provides the theoretical justification for peer teaching by stating that fellow pupils’ Zones of Proximal Development (ZPD) (cognitive ability) are closer than that of a teacher and pupil and so more learning will take place. However, this seems to infer that such a scheme should be carefully managed in ensuring pupils are teaching the correct content, and that it has heavy teacher input (Chan et al., 2009). Such a method may also be time-consuming and seems to disregard the arguably superior pedagogical skills of a teacher compared to a child. Furthermore, such models have mainly been used in higher education and may not be applicable to secondary schools although some aspects of the method may work if they were closely monitored.

Gifted children may not benefit from acceleration where they progress through the curriculum at a faster rate than those of lesser ability (DfE, 2012 a). ACME (2011) sees the wider nature of implications early entry could have on a child’s life, including initiating dissatisfaction with the subject and a reluctance to carry the subject on in post-16 education. This eager approach seems to weigh negatively against a more patient one which, if all exams were sat at the end of Year 11, could leave pupils with a deeper knowledge of a subject and a willingness to engage in further study of the subject (Ofsted, 2006; QCA, 2009; DfE 2012 b). This seems to be an opinion reflected in recent government reforms, with assessment in GCSE moving from modular to linear where all exams are taken at the end of Secondary School (DfE, 2013 a). Black and Wiliam (2001, p.8) extend this sentiment further, by advocating a balanced and strategic approach to assessment where learners’ well-being is considered. DfE (2011 b) encourages collaborative practice between teachers, subject leaders and leadership where individuals’ needs are considered and met as being exemplary practice. Although the HOD has a role to play in improving standards in this aspect, to be effective they seem to have to be part of a team of other professionals such as middle leaders, Senior Leadership Team and the G and T co-ordinator.

Collaboration could be a key of raising standards across all subject areas. Savage (2011) advocates establishing cross-curricular links in lessons and teachers liaising with other subjects when planning lessons. DfE (2013 b) seem to agree with this with their policy of replacing ICT with Computer Science under the expectation it is to be incorporated into every other subject in the curriculum. Literacy is also supposed to be promoted across all subjects (DfE, 2012 c). Whilst this may allow pupils to be assessed more accurately and in-depth by comparing their performance across all subjects, the practicalities have to be considered. It may be difficult to implement this strategy due to timetabling constraints and the fact that all schools have to follow the National Curriculum. However, Academies have a degree of autonomy in being allowed to design and implement their own curriculum to suit the needs of their pupils, although it must be broad and balanced (DfE, 2010 a) which may result in the reality of little distinguishable differences between schools’ curriculum. Furthermore, this in turn could create a further negative; schools may place an importance on a particular subject(s), once again seemingly evidencing the importance of a school’s ethos and orientation as being a factor in raising standards. However, this could be partially negated by using holistic summative assessments such as the OECD’s Test for Schools which gives a global comparison of 15 year old pupils’ performance against other countries in English, Mathematics and Science. This also has the additional benefit of ascertaining students’ attitudes to learning, which could be used constructively to improve teaching in schools (OECD, 2012).

Subjects in which many links can be made between could be clustered by which hemisphere of the brain they correspond to (Josse and Tzourio- Mazoyer, 2003, p.3), with the left side being more logical subjects like mathematics and the right creative subjects like English, though the validity of this theory has since been questioned by OECD (2002) who acknowledge that the curriculum is a spectrum and that subjects cannot be arbitrarily classed as being ‘left’ or ‘right’ because most exhibit features of both. Regardless of the reliability of the theory, it could be questioned whether teachers have the necessary subject content and pedagogical knowledge to exploit and deliver a cross-curricular approach. Reforms such as increasing the pass mark and difficulty of the QTS Skills tests and a possible future requirement for teachers to achieve a grade B at GCSE in Maths and English and take an A Level in one of the core subjects seem to support the view that the government feels teachers’ core skills need to improve (DfE, 2011 b; 2013 c). Ofsted (2009) identify the subject knowledge of a teacher as being pivotal in the formative and foundation stages of a child’s education so essential skills can be adequately learnt. A contrasting view is presented by Cramlet et al. (2005) who perceive a teacher’s personality as being a key variable in successful teaching.

Although personal attributes undoubtedly have some input in determining successful teaching, it seems likely to assume that subject and pedagogical knowledge need to be present for standards to be raised. DCSF (2008 a) recognises the subject leader’s responsibility in identifying and monitoring training needs of teachers, although they may not be responsible for delivering such training. Collaboration amongst other teachers again seems privy to doing this: through events such as INSETs.

The potential disadvantages of using summative assessment may be negated by the self-assessment and reflection that could stem from this approach, particularly in using module tests. Black and Wiliam (1998, p.27) suggest self and peer assessment are crucial to the success of formative and summative assessment as progress is enhanced when pupils learn internally rather than externally what they need to improve on.


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Is Summative or Formative Assessment the best method of assessing pupils?
University of Cumbria
Secondary Maths Teaching
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Essay was graded as first class honours.
Education, Assessment, Pedagogy, Teaching
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Teaching Sam Curran (Author), 2014, Is Summative or Formative Assessment the best method of assessing pupils?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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