When will assessments finally test 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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