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How Technology Can Fix Student Assessments

In K-12 education, end-of-year student tests drive crucial decisions for teachers and policymakers. But these assessments are profoundly flawed ways of measuring student growth and achievement. This article explores the ways in which technology can improve such assessments, as well as the K-12 classroom experience as a whole.

The bane of students nationwide, standardized summative assessments (statewide, end-of-year tests) are crucial yet controversial tools in the U.S. K-12 education market.

According to the Educational Testing Service (ETS), summative assessments aim to provide “a broad view of student and school educational performance and allow districts and states to measure how well learning and teaching is meeting required state standards.” On the state and district levels, these assessments drive everything from funding decisions to graduation requirements and more.

“It is clear that there need to be more robust ways to assess student learning, assessments that go beyond standardized test scores and instead focus on the concepts, skills, and abilities students need to master in order to be successful when they start their careers.”

Yet despite their centrality to the K-12 system, summative assessments are widely seen as flawed in their ability to accurately measure and improve student outcomes. This raises the question of why educators and policymakers have yet to implement more effective alternatives. As Lindsay Bellino, Director of Technology Product Management & Marketing at Pearson, explains, the problem stems largely from a lack of scalable substitutes.

“Most quality educators understand that learning and mastery require more than just getting a good score on a test,” Bellino says. “But up to this point, there hasn’t been a better, scalable way to authentically assess student understanding.”

The 2017 Horizon Report released by the New Media Consortium/Consortium for School Networking — a widely-referenced, authoritative voice in K-12 education technology — reaches the same conclusion: “It is clear that there need to be more robust ways to assess student learning, assessments that go beyond standardized test scores and instead focus on the concepts, skills, and abilities students need to master in order to be successful when they start their careers.”

This article explores how technology can drive improvements to the way student learning is measured and assessed in K-12 education. Through bold experimentation and ongoing support, educators, policymakers, and technologists can collaborate to promote deep, authentic learning experiences and ultimately improve student outcomes.

Technology For Teachers

Technology has long been hailed as a savior for K-12 education, destined to upend a system that has stayed largely static for the past century. But while technology continues to make its way into classrooms, its positive impact on student learning outcomes has proven elusive.

This may have as much to do with the studies attempting to measure such impact as it does with the technology itself. Indeed, the long list of confounding variables that influence K-12 student life — student demographics, socioeconomic status, access to technology at home, access to healthcare, school district funding, and far more — makes isolating and measuring the impact technology has on student outcomes particularly difficult.

For Lindsay Bellino, technology alone does not represent a silver bullet solution for improving student outcomes. Rather, technology can open new avenues for student exploration in and outside the classroom. In this way, technology empowers teachers to design new, personalized learning experiences, outside the scope of simply preparing students for an end-of-year assessment.

Technology has to be a tool for teachers; it cannot replace teachers.

“For teachers that want to focus on providing more authentic learning opportunities for kids while meeting state requirements, technology allows them to meet those requirements but also expand more authentic learning opportunities outside the classroom,” Bellino says. “Technology provides more of a comprehensive opportunity for students to learn outside of just making sure that they’re passing a test.”

The educational doors that technology opens can manifest in a number of ways. For instance, virtual reality can enable a student in rural Kansas to tour the New York Museum of Modern Art or travel to the Taj Mahal. Students learning about marine biology can connect and speak directly with experts and practitioners in the field. These applications, Bellino argues, make learning far more tangible and authentic than it would be if students were confined simply to reading textbooks.

Bellino notes that such technology should be seen as a supplement, not a substitute, for human teachers: “Technology has to be a tool for teachers; it cannot replace teachers,” Bellino says. Rather, through changing how teachers communicate a given subject, edtech applications can significantly improve the way students prepare for summative assessments and motivate positive changes in the way assessments are designed.

An Alternative: Competency-Based Learning

It’s easy to say that technology, if used correctly, can empower teachers and improve student assessments. But what does that look like in practice?

One technology-enabled alternative to summative assessment comes in the form of competency-based learning, characterized by the 2017 Horizon Report as “a promising alternative to summative assessment by validating student learning through digital portfolios and authentic assessments that have students performing a task or project in a real world environment.”

In the traditional K-12 schooling model, classes consist of students of the same age taught the same material at the same pace. Students take a summative assessment at the end of the year and, given that they meet a minimum score, advance to the next grade. In general, a student who scores an average of 70% on every test will be taught in the same way and advance through school at the same rate as a student who scores an average of 90% on every test.

Rather than communicating the same material to an entire classroom, teachers are free to engage one-on-one with students as they chart their own individualized learning paths.

Competency-based systems, on the other hand, emphasize complete demonstrated student mastery of academic material. In a competency-based system, students in a given classroom may learn and progress at completely different rates, meaning that students in a class may be of different ages and focusing on different material. Students are assessed consistently and advance when they show complete mastery. Instead of having one shot at taking an end-of-year summative test, students in competency-based systems take multiple assessments throughout the year and are free to retake any assessment until they demonstrate mastery.

This model shifts the role of the teacher from lecturer to personalized student guide. Rather than communicating the same material to an entire classroom, teachers are free to engage one-on-one with students as they chart their own individualized learning paths. Technology arms teachers with student data and enables them to design personalized learning experiences for each student.

Hundreds of millions of dollars in venture capital funding have gone to startups like AltSchool, a company that develops platforms that enable teachers, schools, and districts to seamlessly utilize data to create authentic, personalized learning experiences and environments. There are efforts to implement personalized learning models at the district and state levels as well. The state of New Hampshire has, for example, advanced a “High School Transformation” plan, the goal of which “is that each student will receive a rigorous and personalized education.”

These competency-based, personalized learning systems fundamental rely on digital technologies to function.

The Importance of Implementation and Constant Support

Many companies, from startups to enterprise-scale businesses, offer EdTech products designed to promote personalized learning. Yet simply creating and offering these tools isn’t enough. Companies also need to provide teachers, schools, and districts with ongoing support in how to properly implement technology in the classroom.

Pearson, Lindsay Bellino explains, acts not only as a vendor and developer of new products, but as a consultant to its customers, identifying where they are in their digital adoption and helping them successfully utilize digital technology on a daily basis.

“If a company isn’t offering services – robust services – to go along with its product, the product is either not going to be used or is going to be used without fidelity,” Bellino says.

The question of how to support implementation of digital EdTech at scale stands as one of the biggest obstacles to wide adoption of new schooling and assessment models. This problem stems, in part, from the heterogeneity of schools across the country. A high school in a wealthy district in Palo Alto may have hardware, such as tablets and smart boards, in every classroom, and infrastructure to support advanced digital tools, as well as a student body accustomed to using such technology at home. A high school in inner-city Baltimore with far fewer resources, on the other hand, may rely solely on analog tools and have a student body with limited access to the internet and other digital technologies. As Bellino says, “Some districts just aren’t equipped to support digital implementations. They don’t have devices, and they don’t have the bandwidth.”

Equipping schools with the devices and infrastructure to support new digital tools often comes down to funding, and therefore may be an issue for policymakers, not companies, to tackle. Still, providing ongoing support to the schools and districts currently attempting a digital shift is just as important – if not more so – than simply developing new technology.

“I think tech adoption is falling short in adequate funding for training and development in ongoing implementation,” Bellino says. “It has to be ongoing. Teachers really need support to understand how to use tech in the classroom to meet district objectives.”

With the right tools and support, digital technologies can improve not only assessments and the role of teachers in the classroom, but school culture as a whole. Rather than viewing school as an exercise in rote memorization, centered on taking an end-of-year test with seemingly no connection to real life, students may increasingly come to view it as a place to explore and gain new skills. While the impact EdTech has had on student outcomes has proved difficult to quantify, the power of technology to shift the way students view tests and learning make it a worthwhile – and necessary – investment in the years ahead.