Report: Personalizing Assessments To Improve Instruction

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Can technology improve the effectiveness of assessments? According to a new report issued Monday by the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA), it can when it's used in a less formal setting and applied for the purpose of improving instruction and outcomes for students rather than merely taking a snapshot of students' knowledge at a given point in time.

The report, "Technology-Based Assessments Improve Teaching and Learning," (part of SETDA's ongoing Class of 2020: Action Plan for Education series) focuses on micro-assessments and other kinds of formative assessments that are used not just to gauge what students have learned but to apply the results of the assessments to help work on student weaknesses. The report does not advocate increased use of testing; rather, it advocates "using technology to assess students in a less formalized, yet more personalized, manner can glean benefits for teachers and students alike." It highlights innovative uses of technology in delivering formative assessments and also looks at the barriers schools face in implementing effective assessment strategies.

"The difference is whether our educational system uses data reactively or proactively. There is evidence that the proactive use of formative assessments improves teacher quality and increases student achievement," said Mary Ann Wolf, executive director of SETDA, in a statement released Monday. "Scaling these low-stakes formative assessment systems up will make a real difference in our educational system. This will require adequate teacher training, IT support to ensure the reports delivered to teachers are relevant and user-friendly, and strong leadership about the importance of data analysis to drive classroom instruction at the school, district, and state levels."

The report cites some of the effective uses of micro- and other types of formative assessments that are currently in use by schools or emerging as viable options. These include performance assessments, which presume that the completion of a project can only happen if a student has the knowledge required for the project; blended assessments, which combine subject areas to measure knowledge of 21st century skills (such as technology literacy, learning and thinking skills, etc.); portfolio assessments, which measure a students performance based on collections of "student-created artifacts" compiled in portfolios; and online assessments, which in some cases are used effectively to provide feedback to the student or teacher. (Specific cases of the effective use of these techniques are provided within the report.)

But effective use of formative assessments does face some serious barriers. Among these are the lack of infrastructure needed to support broad-based implementation of formative assessment, including inadequate high-speed broadband access in schools. (See our previous report on this topic here.) Other barriers cited in the report include:

  • Inadequacy of teacher training in the areas of data analysis and assessment literacy;
  • NCLB forcing teachers to devote too much time to state- or district-required material for high-stakes tests, leaving too little time for conducting and using formative assessments effectively;
  • "Pressure to teach classroom as a unit, so everyone's on the same page";
  • Pacing that prevents teachers from addressing "gaps in understanding revealed by formative assessment";
  • Time and effort to administer the assessments;
  • The separation of teachers from the assessment process, especially on high-stakes standardized tests;
  • The tradition of assessing knowledge after the fact (i.e., after the completion of a particular section) rather than as part of the process of learning; and
  • In some cases, a lack of understanding that technology can be used to assess knowledge "on the fly" at any given time (such as through the use of classroom clickers) on an informal basis without the overhead of time and meticulousness that paper-based tests require.

So what's to be done?

The report makes numerous recommendations for transforming assessment into a means to an end, rather than merely as an end in and of itself. These include incorporating assessments into daily instruction (with an emphasis on consistency and timeliness), adopting instructional design principles that aim to engage individual student capabilities and deficiencies, and providing teacher training on the effective use of data for improving teaching, along with funding to support this.

Other recommendations include:

  • A change in the approach of federal, state, and district leaders to encourage the use of assessments as a ""carrot and not a stick";
  • Use of technology to bring assessments into the home to create a greater connection between schools and families in monitoring and facilitating student progress;
  • Ensuring the accuracy, timeliness, and user-friendliness of "data flowing into the classroom for the improvement of instruction";
  • Ensuring seamless, continuous use of technology in instruction and assessment;
  • Ensuring software is available for tutoring; and
  • Posting results immediately in student information systems for "transferability of transcript for analysis at the state, school and classroom levels."

Complete details of the report, as well as a downloadable copy of the report, are available at SETDA's Class of 2020 site here.

About the Author

David Nagel is the executive producer for 1105 Media's online K-12 and higher education publications and electronic newsletters. He can be reached at dnagel@1105media.com. He can now be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/THEJournalDave (K-12) or http://twitter.com/CampusTechDave (higher education). You can also connect with him on LinkedIn at http://www.linkedin.com/profile/view?id=10390192.

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