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From Entreé to Spice: The Promise of Assessment

Coram Bryant | October 30, 2014

The rapid ascent of digital technology in education presents a singular opportunity to transform assessment. With the capacity to capture student learning in a variety of ways, and in minute detail, educational technologies can engage students with authentic learning while simultaneously providing teachers with rich, formative data. In this way, assessments can evolve from a separate entreé at the end of the meal to a spice that seamlessly blends into and enhances the main course.

Assessments can evolve from a separate entreé at the end of the meal to a spice that seamlessly blends into and enhances the main course.

Formative data can come from unlikely sources, such as my team’s focus: games. At Motion Math, we strive to help kids find delight in intellectual challenge by creating games that merge fundamental learning principles with (seriously) playful interactions. Although this recipe has proven effective, teachers continue to ask for more: specifically, actionable data on student progress and misconceptions. Our first response, the Motion Math Educator, provides a dashboard of real-time Common Core mastery data based on measures of operations employed by students as they play with numbers and mathematical concepts. As one teacher using our games observed, “the data is reliable because the students are invested,” which is often not the case during a traditional summative exam.

Ours is just one example in a growing trend of game-based assessment. The potential gains of formative assessment are significant: Each moment a student struggles due to a correctable misconception (beyond the requisite amount of struggle that is essential to learning!), is a wasted opportunity to advance understanding. Here, teachers can immediately enhance their instructional toolset by screening potential digital tools with a basic litmus test:

  • Does the application provide formative rather than summative assessment? That is, do the assessments occur during the learning process so the results can be used to address real-time misconceptions with a quick intervention or mini-lesson?

  • Are the assessments endogenous rather than exogenous, meaning that they are seamlessly incorporated into authentic learning activities? Examples include the level achieved in a game or a student-created project, as opposed to periodic quizzes.

  • Are the results criterion-referenced rather than norm-referenced, meaning that they report on conceptual understanding instead of a student’s ranking among their peers?

By holding learning technologies to these standards, teachers can both improve instruction for their students and raise the bar for the edtech industry to combine engaging conceptual experiences with useful tools to ensure teacher success. With formative assessment integrated into day-to-day instruction, the need for costly and unwieldy summative evaluations greatly diminishes.

The final piece of the puzzle, ironically, is a means of standardization (that oft-maligned term!) that would help teachers make sense of the growing diversity of digital assessments. With support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Noyce Foundation, we’re actively working on a platform to provide teachers with exactly this sort of information: data and recommendations about which mobile math apps will positively impact learning for their students. While this and related movements are still in their infancy, teachers can and must be involved in the dialogue to shape the future of digital learning assessments, by asking questions such as:

  • Which assessment results best help me understand my students' needs?

  • Which assessment results align with my observations, and which do not? Are discrepancies due to issues with the assessments, gaps in my observations, or features in the app that cause my students to shine or struggle?

  • How might these assessment results be unified to help me shape a coherent plan for my students?

Ultimately, the true promise of technologies for learning is not merely to enhance content, but also to provide rich, immediately actionable feedback to teachers, students, and the technology developers themselves. By engaging these three stakeholders in a continuous dialogue, we have an opportunity to create responsive environments that foster enthusiastic, engaged, and empowered learners. In the end, this outcome, more than any test result, is the one that truly matters.

Photo: "Coffee Swirl" by Will Keightley. Used under Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.0 License.