When will assessments finally test deeper learning?

By Stuart Kahl
March 30th, 2016


Technology means assessments can focus on more than just multiple-choice. Can testing keep up?


When we imagine the future of assessment it’s easy to envision all sorts of impressive ways to help gauge what students know and what they can do. Gaming and simulations, especially, create all kinds of possibilities.

But the major focus of assessment technology in recent years, of course, has been on efficiency of test delivery and administration—with little true innovation making it to students’ test booklets or computer screens.

Eighteen years ago, Black and Wiliam of King’s College, London, told the world of the remarkable academic gains that can be accomplished by the effective use of the multi-step instructional process called “formative assessment.” Unfortunately, the term came to mean “frequent testing” to many. Because timing of the evidence-gathering step (during instruction) and immediacy of feedback are important to the process, online delivery of multiple-choice tests is what many chose to do in the name of “formative assessment.”

Research indicating that rich, descriptive feedback (not number of correct multiple-choice responses) is the most effective for formative purposes was largely ignored, as were other steps in the larger process. Fortunately, professional development specialists who understand the value of the full process are providing training and tools for true formative assessment.

The call for performance assessments

The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) required high-stakes testing at many grades and quick turnaround of results to accommodate parental choice decisions. To meet those requirements, and to save money, many states reduced or discontinued their use of non-multiple-choice formats, such as constructed-response questions and more extended performance tasks, which are expensive and take time to score. Efficiencies of time and cost ruled the day.

The result is that, for many students and teachers, their only experience with assessment has been during the NCLB era. And with increasingly higher stakes associated with state test results, it isn’t surprising that teachers use tests that emulate the state tests in their classrooms. Is it any wonder there are concerns about students’ lack of higher-order thinking skills and the ability to apply foundational knowledge and skills to more complex real-world problems?

Today’s business leaders and policy makers frequently call for deeper learning and college and career readiness in pre-college students, and the Common Core State Standards do the same. The federally-funded PARCC and Smarter Balanced consortia are assessing student achievement relative to those higher standards.

Next page: How schools can assess deeper learning