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Formative vs Summative Assessment in Early Childhood Education

Monitor preschoolers’ performance with effective assessment strategies.

Formative vs Summative Assessment in Early Childhood Education

Formative vs Summative Assessment in Early Childhood Education

Assessment in early childhood education helps preschool teachers ascertain whether children are learning the content and skills they’re teaching. Assessment also helps teachers identify learning gaps and develop strategies to help children achieve their goals.

Educators use various formal and informal assessment methods. Formal methods include standardized tests and questionnaires, while informal methods include collecting data, observations, and portfolios. 

The most common types of assessment are formative and summative. As a preschool teacher, you might be familiar with these terms but still need clarification about how they work. In this article, we’re discussing how they differ and how to apply each in the classroom.

What is formative assessment?

Formative assessment gauges a child’s understanding during the learning process. It helps teachers answer essential questions like: Is the learning on track? What teaching strategies should be removed or improved? For example, imagine teaching preschoolers numbers 1-10, but most didn’t grasp the concept. Formative assessment provides teachers with real-time feedback to recognize where the children are unable to grasp concepts and gives them data to address any issues immediately.

Formative assessment is primarily informal, which works great for preschoolers as they learn best through play, exploration, and interaction. Through daily interaction with and observation of the children, you can collect information on their accomplishments, needs, interests, social skills, and behavior.  You can assess their learning in various scenarios like group instruction and activities, center rotations, recess, lunch, and individually working with them.

Formative assessment helps preschool teachers adjust instruction to meet each child’s needs as they grow and change. For example, a child finding it difficult to grasp concepts from a workbook might benefit from using physical objects or playing a game. Common examples of formative assessment include observation, one-to-one conversations, and samples of children’s work.

What is summative assessment?

Summative assessment happens at the end of a learning period and evaluates cumulative learning. It helps teachers gauge a child’s understanding and proficiency after a unit, lesson, or semester. After the learning period, teachers grade a child’s performance against a standard or benchmark. For example, while using a preschool assessment form, the teacher may write the letter “M” to indicate a child has mastered the alphabet or “D” to show a child is still developing a specific skill, like counting up to 10.

Summative assessments affect a child’s ability to progress to the next level or unit. For example, you may need to repeat lessons for a child who hasn’t grasped some concepts. On the other hand, a child who has mastered the concepts will move on to the next learning level. Summative assessment also helps highlight gaps in the curriculum and instruction so teachers can recognize where they need to change teaching strategies.

Difference between formative and summative assessment

Now that you understand the meanings of formative and summative assessments, let’s look at what makes them different.

Formative assessment is generally low stakes, and is mainly done by observation and interaction. On the other hand, summative assessment is usually high stakes because it’s graded and tends to have consequences if a child hasn’t mastered key concepts.

Formative assessments are primarily informal, allowing children to participate without knowing they are being assessed. On the other hand, summative assessments can be graded in alignment with instruction goals and expected outcomes, and in some cases, the child might be aware that you’re assessing them.

The time frame is one of the most significant differences between these two types of assessment. Formative assessments happen during the learning period and are ongoing as the teacher deems appropriate. However, summative assessments are often one-off at the end of the learning period.

Formative assessment focuses on improving how a child learns. It helps monitor the child’s learning progress so that teachers can catch problems early and adjust their instruction method if necessary. Summative assessment focuses more on evaluating the overall understanding of what children have learned.

Formative assessment covers small areas of learning, while summative assessment covers a large portion of learning. For example, a teacher will monitor the performance of a child’s recognition of the number “1” when performing a formative assessment and test the child’s recognition of numbers 1-10 when conducting a summative assessment.

Examples of formative assessment in early childhood education

Preschool formative assessments help teachers monitor children’s physical, cognitive, and social-emotional development. Examples include:


Teachers must observe children to determine whether they engage in the lessons and grasp essential concepts. However, monitoring and observation shouldn’t be limited to the classroom but should also go onto the playground during recess. Two childhood observation methods you can use include anecdotal records and running records. Anecdotal records are brief notes taken by a teacher detailing a child’s actions and comments during an activity. These notes are typically written in past tense and answer the questions “what, where, and when” of a specific activity. Running record observations on the other hand are written in the present tense, offering a detailed account of a child’s actions and interests as they happen.

Teachers will have a general idea of a child’s development by observing their behavior, interests, social skills, academic accomplishments, and more. Monitoring will help teachers understand the child's needs and what areas to spend more time on. An excellent way for educators to keep their observations organized is to print index cards with space for details like the date, the child’s name, a skill you’re assessing, and observations.

Samples of children’s work

Samples of children’s work, like drawings, crafts, and paintings, help their families understand what the children are learning. It’s helpful to include a few notes to explain the sample so the family has context on what the child was doing or what skill they were learning. Save each child’s samples in an individual folder or box.

One-to-one conversations

One-to-one conversations are effective because you get the opportunity to  interact with the child directly and really understand what a child knows and how they came to that knowledge. To dig deeper into a child’s understanding, ask questions like “How did you figure that out?”,  “Tell me how you know”,  “Why do you think that?” Remember to follow these up with clarifying questions.

Family communication

Regular communication between  teachers and families is crucial for assessing growth and development. For example, teachers can send short questionnaires with a couple of action points to parents or guardians to monitor skills the child might be struggling with, such as self-regulation. When assessment happens on both fronts, it’s more effective.

Summative assessment examples for early childhood

While formative assessments are typically preferred in early education settings, summative assessments can still be used to gauge a child’s overall development and understanding.

Progress report cards

Progress report cards give families a quick and clear look at what areas the child is excelling in and where they need to improve. Ensure that you cover the child's progress in the main developmental areas—language, social-emotional development, physical skills, and cognitive skills. Your specific program will determine how often you issue a progress report card, however, quarterly or semi-annually is a great place to start.

Hands-on performance tasks

Performance tasks are practical, simple, and straightforward tasks that allow children to put their knowledge to work. They can help teachers evaluate specific skills such as color knowledge, pattern skills, or counting skills. For example, if you want to assess color knowledge and pattern skills, place manipulatives of three different colors in front of the child. Then ask them, “Can you put all the yellow bears together, all the blue bears together, and all the green ones together?” You can also do the same for different shapes. 


A portfolio is a structured way to document a child’s learning progress and growth over a period of time. It can include any material that highlights a child’s development such as drawings or art samples, photographs documenting a specific activity, or descriptions of conversations with the child. The portfolio can be a digital collection of records, a physical portfolio, or a combination of both.

The bottom line

The importance of formative and summative assessment in early childhood education can’t be overstated. While formative tools are an assessment “for” learning, summative tools are an assessment “of” learning. Both forms are effective, especially when you use them together.

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