If you went through grade school in the last 40 years, chances are you remember filling in answer bubbles to columns of multiple choice items. The introduction of Scantron forms allowed for high-volume processing of standardized results, but it also facilitated a culture of remembering rather than knowing. This method of test-taking tends to prioritize the final answer over the process and does not provide a true picture of student understanding.
Activities, labs and discussions offer much better real-world training than simply recalling a factoid and marking “C” on a Scantron. But how do we assess those skills on a large scale?
Fortunately, technology has some answers. Today, it is possible to deliver interactive and thorough assessments to masses of students without wasting hours manually grading results. Digital assessments reduce the labor-intensive process of grading, much like Scantrons did, but they speak to digital natives in their own language. This methodology also helps educators assess a standardized baseline, even though the actual assessment may adapt to each student's answers.
Modernizing Assessment Capabilities
Consider the math problem: Graph y = 2x + 1. In multiple choice format, students would simply pick the correct graph from several choices. Precise graphing and quantitative analysis are complex skills, yet in this case, the problem does not require any actual graphing. There also are numerous “shortcuts” to the correct answer without using any math skills, including guessing.
With modern computer-based assessments, the item can ask a student to graph and draw a conclusion from its details, all in a platform that allows for auto-grading. It combines the best of both worlds: the speed of previous standardized assessments with the process of logical deduction required in true problem-solving.
For years, educators have recognized the importance of rigor. The argument behind rigor is the same as grades vs. learning: a good test-taker can do well on standardized tests, but may fail in a real-world environment. Modernizing assessment capabilities in a customized platform integrates rigor by requiring students to demonstrate why they know what they know, while still maintaining the important metric aspects of standardization.
Robert Marzano, executive director of Learning Sciences Marzano Center, describes how the shift toward modernized assessment platform and rigor go hand-in-hand. “The move toward rigor places students squarely at the center of the classroom, where they will grapple with challenging content individually and collaboratively, and where they will be expected to actively demonstrate their learning. Teachers will have to embrace a shift in their instructional methods, the strategies on which they rely to teach content, to methodically empower students to successfully own their learning at the highest levels of complexity.”
Of course, every path to modernization comes with its own roadblocks. The realm of standardized testing is no different. Technical glitches will appear—in the platform, supporting servers and actual content. Teachers themselves may need to be trained to get the most out of digital platforms. Finally, students vary in their computer fluency, and this is often tied to economic and cultural variables. Developers and organizations need to standardize, receive feedback, and update in a method that benefits all parties in the user flow.
Bringing Digital Test Prep to the Classroom
The push to make digital testing a reality starts with two multi-state consortium groups. The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) works with states’ boards of education on developing modern platforms to replace previous standardized tests. Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) also pushes to digitalize assessments, focusing on cutting-edge elements such as accessibility and real-time customization.
The impact of PARCC and SBAC goes beyond the actual classroom—the entire industry of education is evolving around modern expectations and standards for content and tool developers.
A prime example is how we've evolved here at Wisewire. We analyzed the user experience and item types in the available tests from PARCC and SBAC. Their design became the model for Wisewire’s own formative assessment bank. An initial run of these technology-enhanced item templates were made available to teachers, and their feedback emphasized the power and reach of these digital assessments.
The item templates were so effective that we made the tool public for anyone to use. The current platform provides teachers with free accounts to create their own assessments from a wide variety of item types.
The benefits of this platform are two-fold. First, it allows teachers to customize assessments based on their curriculum and what they deem as most important to end-of-year goals. Second, it helps everyone—students, parents, and educators—become familiar with technology-enhanced assessments. Together, these benefits give educators the tools they need to prepare students for the high-stakes assessment process.
Unifying Learning and Test Taking
The emphasis on rigor in contemporary educational standards requires rigorous testing methods. In the past, districts had to assess thousands of students by state standards, and the most efficient way to do that was through multiple-choice exams.
However, modern tools and grading methods can assess more than simply the correct answer, requiring students to demonstrate the how and explain the why. But it is not only assessment that’s changing. The model established by the two consortia has been so effective that independent companies are modeling their core curriculum and supplementary materials around it.
The result is a complete paradigm shift in education that enables both teachers and students to use new tools from the first lesson to the final exam.