Samantha Garcia, MPH, CHES, Program in Public Health

Summative assessments are assessments that provide evidence of students’ cumulative knowledge learned throughout a course.1 While it is essential for students to master course content and build a foundation in that topic area, summative assessments given in the form of a Scantron-based standardized exams may not adequately measure the intended objective. What if our assessments have measurement error? What if the measurement error exacerbates when evaluating diverse student populations? This article will discuss important considerations to using standardized final exams as a summative assessment.

Who benefits from standardized Scantron exams? Who doesn’t?

Standardized exams are a common practice used by educators since the 1920’s.2 This is because growing classroom sizes on college campuses can exacerbate the need for an assessment tool with fast-return capabilities. Time spent on grading is drastically reduced when utilizing Scantrons, giving professors more time to work on research responsibilities. While many appreciate their convenience and affordability,3 students are not at the forefront of the decision to utilize a standardized exam at the conclusion of a course.

Using a heavily weighted cookie-cutter test to determine class grades can be problematic when assessing clusters of students adversely impacted by standardized final exams more than others. This is due to students handling varying levels of stress and test anxiety that can affect their performance.4,5 Significantly, cognitive testing anxiety is associated with lower academic performance (measured as GPA) among students.6 College women may have higher test anxiety than males.7,8 In addition, studies have found racial and ethnic minorities have higher levels of test anxiety, partially mediating the difference in academic performance.8 For instructors hoping to achieve an inclusive class design, more consideration should be given to how standardized exams increase test anxiety, affect subpopulations of college students differently, and lead to potentially bias assessments.

What are we really measuring with Scantrons?

It is often the intention of the course instructor to create an unbiased assessment tool to evaluate the extent to which the students absorbed course content. Performance on summative assessments may provide insight on student readiness to contribute to the field of study. How informative are Scantron-based tests in assessing students’ readiness?

Scantron tests require instructors to preselect a set of topics and inquire about a specific detail related to that topic. This form of assessment may reveal how well the student navigated the test and answered questions correctly, but it does not always highlight the knowledge students deemed important and acquired throughout the course. If our goal, as an instructor, is to assess how ready they are to adequately contribute to the field, it is important to note that Scantron-based tests have limitations and can have large measurement error for diverse students. Instructors should consider feasibility of summative assessments that allow students to showcase their knowledge (e.g., final projects, papers, or free-response exams).


Scantron exams are feasible, reliable, and convenient. In large classrooms, they alleviate grading time and provide overzealous students with their final grade shortly after testing. However, it is important to acknowledge that standardized exams impact subgroups of students differently. A standardized test does evaluate a heterogenous group of students equally. However, it does not reflect the students’ ability to contribute to the field. While it may not be practical to eliminate standardized tests in all classrooms, instructors should consider the weight they apply to a standardized test to their rubric. Further, instructions should explore opportunities for more inclusive exams where students express their knowledge of the material under lower stress environments.


1. Taras, M (2005). Assessment–summative and formative–some theoretical reflections. British journal of educational studies, 53(4), 466-478.

2. Madaus, GF, Raczek, A, and Clarke, MM (1997) The historical and policy foundations of the assessment movement. In A. L. Goodwin (ed.), Assessment for Equity and Inclusion: Embracing all our Children (New York: Routledge), 1±33.

3. Clarke, MM, Madaus, GF, Horn, CL, & Ramos, MA (2000). Retrospective on educational testing and assessment in the 20th century. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 32(2), 159-181. 

4. von der Embse, N, Jester, D, Roy, D, & Post, J (2018). Test anxiety effects, predictors, and correlates: A 30-year meta-analytic review. Journal of Affective Disorders, 227, 483-493. 

5. Hernández, AL, González Escobar, S, González Arratia López Fuentes, NI, & Barcelata Eguiarte, BE (2019). Stress, Self-Efficacy, Academic Achievement and Resilience in Emerging Adults. Electronic Journal of Research in Educational Psychology, 17(47), 129-148.

6. Thomas, CL, Cassady, JC, & Heller, ML (2017). The influence of emotional intelligence, cognitive test anxiety, and coping strategies on undergraduate academic performance. Learning and Individual Differences, 55, 40-48. 

7. Chapell, MS, Blanding, ZB, Silverstein, ME, Takahashi, M, Newman, B, Gubi, A, & McCann, N (2005). Test anxiety and academic performance in undergraduate and graduate students. Journal of educational Psychology, 97(2), 268. 

8. Osborne, JW (2001). Testing stereotype threat: Does anxiety explain race and sex differences in achievement? Contemporary Educational Psychology, 26(3), 291-310. 

Matthew Mahavongtrakul edited this post on June 4th, 2019.