What is assessment?

Assessment, according to Cronbach, can be described as a ‘procedure for making inferences’ (1971: 447).

For example, when listening to a student play the piano, a teacher could infer (or conclude) that a learner’s left-hand technique is secure and/or that they are a very talented piano player. These inferences might be considered as summative because the purpose of these comments is to ‘sum-up’. If, on the other hand, the teacher notices that the learner is having difficulty with their right-hand scales then this can be thought of as formative because the comment considers what the next steps are in the teaching and learning cycle.

Similarly, in mathematics, a teacher could test pupils on a sample of multiplication tables from 2-12. Having marked the tests, the teacher could infer that, on average, learners scored 35/50 – a decent average score! This inference could be considered summative because learning has been ‘summed up’. The teacher could also conclude that learners seem to be having issues with their 7 times tables. This conclusion might be thought of as formative because it considers the next steps.

Thinking of assessment as a procedure for making inferences is important for educators because it means:

  1. That all assessment information has the potential to be used summatively and formatively; and
  2. It implies that summative assessment is not just something that occurs at the end of a unit, module, or course, but can occur regularly during teaching and learning.    

Of course, as will be referred to in this MESH Guide, just identifying what needs to be done next is not enough. For formative assessment to have the desired impact, the ‘next steps’ need to be acted on and practised.