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When will assessments finally test deeper learning?

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

The Smarter Balanced and PARCC assessment consortia are both beginning to use test questions known as technology-enhanced items (TEIs). These are questions that use student-computer interactions such as drag-and-drop, hot spots, and matching for responses that can be scored by computer and can address standards of greater complexity and depth of knowledge than traditional item types. TEIs hold a lot of promise. Yet writing them is not easy. Some so-called TEIs fail to measure anything more than can already be measured by existing multiple-choice items. For example, asking a student to drag a car image to a location on a hill where it has the greatest potential energy measures nothing more than an item asking students to pick the one graphic out of four that shows the correct spot on a hill where a car has the greatest potential energy. However, many of the consortia’s TEIs avoid this pitfall. They’re creative and effective and do indeed advance the field of testing.

Initially, the “next generation” assessments of both PARCC and Smarter Balanced had planned to make extensive use of extended performance assessments—which require students to perform some sort of task. However, both consortia have scaled back their plans because of concerns on feasibility, security, efficiency, and psychometric quality. PARCC chose not to count through-course performance assessments administered at different points during the school year. Early on, the Smarter Balanced working group on performance assessment envisioned multi-day, project-like activities, some of which could involve group work. But Smarter Balanced reduced the scope of its performance component to more traditional on-demand tasks that can be administered in back-to-back periods in the same day.

Thus, the primary focus of NCLB-era testing—both high-stakes accountability testing and school/classroom-based testing—has been on foundational knowledge and skills. Most testing has not effectively engaged students in the kinds of activities that would tap deeper learning and support the broader goals of education.

What schools can start doing

Fortunately, performance assessment, neglected for some time, is on the rise. Today’s rigorous standards, updated technology, and lessons learned from the NCLB era have given us both the capabilities and the know-how to do it effectively. We have the technology we need right now for very effective performance assessment, both curriculum-embedded and standalone. In conjunction with these assessments, we should look forward to more of the following.

  • Students, individually and in groups, engaged in learning and assessment activities that involve digital research, exploration, collaboration, and organization tools
  • Students producing scoreable products making use of tools to publish, storyboard, map, and create videos; students using presentation tools and apps for interactive white-boarding, screen-casting, and multi-media presentations
  • Students storing their work and submitting it for evaluation via digital portfolio systems
  • Teachers and others—anywhere—scoring student work and auditing scores using distributed scoring systems

These applications of technology are not new, but the NCLB era saw far too little use of them. We need to make greater use of the technologies we have now and, at the same time, make sure new tools don’t drive us to practices that inhibit deeper learning. Emerging pilot programs in Ohio and New Hampshire are already making good use of technology and performance assessments. As educational reformers call for changes in the ways many teachers and students spend their time, the tools and technology already at our disposal can go a long way in supporting those changes— changes embodied in performance-based instruction and assessment.

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