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Innovations in Testing Can Help Students Deepen Their Base of Knowledge

The COVID pause gives states and districts a chance to rethink how they test students – from state assessments that provide a year-end summary of student progress to interim district exams that assess progress at a point in time to classroom tests that teachers give to assess their students’ particularities.

Article by William McKenzie April 19, 2021 //   6 minute read

Despite the new realities COVID-19 has presented schools, the Biden Administration rightly has decided that states still must administer their annual assessments of students. Federal requirements for state tests in subjects like reading and math will provide rich data that schools can use to reshape and refine instruction coming out of the pandemic. Similarly, policymakers can use the results to guide improvements for a post-COVID environment.  

The COVID pause, however, gives states and districts a chance to rethink how they test students – from state assessments that provide a year-end summary of student progress to interim district exams that assess progress at a point in time to classroom tests that teachers give to assess their students’ particularities. States and districts have an opportunity to modernize exams so that they keep helping educators, students, parents, and taxpayers understand the trajectory of a school and its students. 

My Bush Institute colleague Anne Wicks and I spent several weeks last year interviewing  testing experts, state education leaders, school superintendents, and classroom educators about the future of testing. How can technological advancements help us understand what students know and what they might need to learn at a deeper level? How can we ensure tests and curriculum are aligned so tests reveal what students actually know? How can that information become useful to teachers and principals so that they improve classroom learning? 

Here are four takeaways that stood out during our discussions. Each point is wrapped up in the effort to deepen students’ understanding of the world. 

Embedded assessments: Thanks to modern technologies, some high-quality curricula come with tests embedded in them. Scott Marion, executive director of the Center for Assessment and a New Hampshire school board member, explained that “[The curriculum] will come with decent embedded assessments that will guide teachers about moving to the next step, whether that is reviewing a certain concept or moving to the next unit. In this day and age, there is no excuse for not having a curriculum that's available online. It shouldn't just be a textbook.” 

Modern technologies can help teachers deliver richer instruction by knowing where to fill in gaps and/or supplement academic content. Numerous districts nationwide have used the Measure of Academic Progress (MAP) online exams for an early snapshot into learning loss during the pandemic. The Northwest Evaluation Association, or NWEA, nonprofit pioneered the tests, which often take less than 90 minutes to determine a student’s grasp of reading and math. 

Marrying online assessment with comparability—The beauty of an exam like MAP is that it combines instant feedback with a sense of how your students are faring nationally. Comparability, as it is known in the testing world, is fundamental to ensuring equity in education. As Mike Miles, CEO and founder of Third Future Schools, a charter network in Colorado and Texas, told us, “That’s why the MAP test is important for us. We can see how our kids are doing comparable to kids across the nation. We are such a mobile society that we should be able to say that if a child can read in Colorado, they can read in New York, Florida, or Texas.”

As adults, we are not being fair if we tell students they are proficient when they are not. But when you have a national bar that shows when students truly are proficient, then states and districts can devote resources to help struggling students reach that bar.

Deeper learning: Schools and the testing industry are asking richer questions and digging deeper into the content that students are asked to understand. For instance, Third Future Schools is pioneering an art-of-thinking class that will test critical thinking skills through project-based or performance assessments. The students will be presented a problem and asked to solve it under various scenarios. This strategy will assess their creativity, gauge their base of knowledge, and probe their problem-solving skills. Each, of course, will come into play once students enter adulthood and the workforce. 

Testing and curriculum: Testing for deeper knowledge is linked to developing a richer curriculum. John White, Louisiana’s former superintendent of schools, explained that “Curriculum is where learning starts at scale. You want assessments to embody the curriculum.” 

Here’s one example: You want a curriculum that allows students to develop a better understanding of the content they are reading, and not just focus on the skill of reading. As White emphasized, we want to know what students actually know, not just what they can do. A quality curriculum and an aligned test will help reveal that knowledge. 

Knowledge. The testing movement the Biden Administration upheld and that innovators are taking to the next level is ultimately about this simple question: What do students know? Once that becomes clear, educators can determine whether interventions might help students improve their grasp of a subject or deepen their understanding of it. 

This is all about expanding their base of knowledge.