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Assessment Trends in 2020: A Vision for Assessing Today’s Students

Translucent blue touchscreen displays Very Good, Excellent, Average, Good and Poor as a finger touches the word Excellent
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(Image credit: Trenton Goble)

Throughout the K-12 learning landscape, assessment practices are changing to embrace assessment for learning, not assessment of learning. Consistent with 21st-century learning and the benefits brought on by better assessment tools, assessment is becoming more student-centric, offering educators the insights that will help them determine the best instructional next-steps and how to make learning more personal for the individual student.

Trading the punitive elements of policies like No Child Left Behind for the growth mindset presented in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), states are now able and incentivized to take advantage of alternatives to the expensive, high-stakes, end-of-level tests that have persisted for decades despite providing little benefit to the students.

There is Power in Formative Assessment

Though this may be a list of trends, the growing practice of deliberate formative assessment is here to stay. When educators embed frequent, in-class assessment into daily instruction, they’re gathering the data they need to identify student levels of understanding, target intervention, and evaluate their instructional practices individually and across their teams.

Formative assessments, whether graded or ungraded, can and should be carried out in a variety of modalities (i.e. paper-and-pencil or online quizzes, verbal cues, informal observations by the teacher, etc). Each should provide nuanced insights into student understanding that drive instruction. By doing so, teachers and students begin to view assessments as informative rather than punitive. Differentiated, ongoing assessments should address the varied levels of understanding that make up every classroom. 

The power of formative assessment therefore lies not in the data but in how the data can be used to inform teaching and learning.

From Traditional Grading to Standards-Based

“When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.” --Goodhart’s Law

Traditional grading approaches provide letter and/or number grades meant to show a student’s overall academic standing, yet this offers students, teachers, and parents little-to-no insight into what the student has actually learned. 

Standards-based learning greatly benefits students by changing the conversation from “What is my grade?” to “What do I know?” This seemingly subtle difference leads to not-so-subtle shifts in how educators approach learning and address student levels of understanding. 

When focused on what students actually know and don’t know, teachers and stakeholders realize the need to identify deficiencies in a student’s learning, and can use these insights to adjust instruction. Students can work to achieve mastery prior to moving on to more complicated skills and concepts. Progression is now based on understanding and readiness rather than by some other schedule disconnected from the student’s needs.

More than just a tactic, the standards-based model supports the growth mindset behind authentic life-long learning. 

More Actionable Assessment Data

As the edtech landscape has evolved, so too has the ability to gather student performance data. The large quantities of data thus begs the question: What to do with it?

Among the shifting mindsets within K-12 education is the need for schools and districts to move from a culture of collecting data to one of using data. Formative and benchmark assessments provide data teachers can use, in the moment, to improve student outcomes. By upgrading the tech tools used in the assessment process, teachers can simplify and shorten the feedback loop, becoming increasingly accustomed to using data to drive their instruction. 

As teachers, schools, and entire districts find themselves using common platforms for gathering and using formative and benchmark assessment data--all aligned to common standards--such stakeholders are better able (and more willing) to collaborate around assessment data to support resource sharing, instructional best practices, and larger learning trends.

Alternatives to End-of-Level Testing

With the unacceptable results of high-stakes testing persisting each year, ESSA offered states much needed relief with the opportunity to replace end-of-level tests with alternative “innovative assessments.”

Among the alternatives being developed, breakthroughs in machine learning have allowed psychometric models (i.e. valid and reliable) that reduce assessment seat times and improve the quality of actionable data. These models can do far more to improve student growth while requiring much less of the students, from a testing standpoint. It’s a win across the board, but most importantly for the students and their academic growth.

Assessment Tech is Evolving

Across the board, the world of education is growing accustomed to the presence of tech, even coming to expect it as a part of the learning process. Teachers have moved from the question of “Should I tech?” to “How can I integrate tech best, enhancing the learning experience without hijacking it?” Students are increasingly comfortable with the myriad ways in which tech allows them to gain, and demonstrate, skills and understanding. Even parents are expecting more frequent and extensive insight into their child’s learning and classroom environment, accessing such insights directly from their phone. 

Whether it’s the mindset, the tech, the practice, or something yet unseen, what is certain is that change will continue to impact our teachers and students in the classroom. When it comes to changes in assessment, we should always seek to better understand the needs of each student. Most importantly, we must always remember that if we solicit data from students, we have a moral obligation to use that data to directly benefit those students.  

The goal of any change should always be to improve and make learning personal for each student. That’s the change we like to see. 

Trenton co-founded MasteryConnect after more than twenty years as a public school teacher and principal. With its acquisition by Instructure in 2019, Trenton now serves as VP of K-12 Learning. He remains a passionate advocate for K-12 educators, supporting schools and districts in implementing mastery learning, PLCs, and effective assessment strategies.