First, a primer: when a student takes a test or writes a paper at the end of a unit of study, if that test or paper is graded and used as a component of that student’s overall grade in the course, we call this summative assessment. When students take standardized tests, as they must do in every academic subject at the end of every school year in high school, this is also considered summative assessment. The latter is often referred to as high-stakes testing because it can determine course placement for the student during the next school year, and it most certainly is a component of the school’s accountability metric under the current incarnation of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act known as No Child Left Behind.
Formative assessment is less discrete. Formative assessment, as the root of the word suggests, is used to assist in informing the instructive and learning processes. Formative assessments provide educators with ongoing feedback that shapes instruction both for individual students and for the class as a whole. Socratic questioning is a formative assessment. Looking over a student’s shoulder as they attempt a practice problem during class is another type of formative assessment. It is low stakes, and purely motivated by the desire on behalf of the teacher to be responsive to his or her students’ needs.