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Testing with Sensitivity

Instructure’s Trenton Goble responds to questions on how assessments are adapting

1. How have school shutdowns changed the way educators view student assessments?

With everything teachers were asked to do during the transition to remote learning, they had little time to dedicate to assessment. They were focused on connecting with students and promoting students’ well-being—the most important work educators do.

While most teachers did eventually find ways to effectively assess students over the past year, we are entering a new school year during which we will need to determine the impacts of the shutdown on each student. Therefore, we are seeing a renewed spotlight on assessment, particularly classroom formative assessment, as educators look to identify what students learned and retained. Educators want and need the insights they get through assessment so they can best meet students where they are and give them the support they need early and often.

2. What are the most popular alternatives to traditional testing?

Teachers are some of the most innovative people on the planet, and they know there are countless alternatives to traditional testing. The most popular alternatives seem to be formative or actionable forms of assessment, as well as the more authentic assessments like project- or performance-based assessment (i.e., using portfolios to gather and analyze student work).

Formative assessments are used by teachers in the classroom to quickly identify student levels of understanding so that teachers can immediately target students for interventions. But one thing we don’t emphasize enough is that these classroom formatives give educators insights to evaluate their own instructional efficacy— they are one of the key tools through which teachers can actually use data to adjust and improve instructional practices. I get really excited when I see teachers implementing multiple assessment strategies, including formative assessments as well as authentic forms of assessment, to allow their students to demonstrate their learning and to better understand their students’ needs.

3. How do educators believe we can make testing more appropriate for minorities?

When we talk about making tests more appropriate for minority students, what we are really asking educators to do is to completely rethink the entire purpose of testing. Too often a test is that thing we do at the end of a unit, semester, or year of study. It’s used as a means of putting a score in the gradebook or for compliance and accountability.

Shifting away from traditional “testing” to a more balanced approach to assessment means we get a better understanding of the individual student when it matters most, allowing us to make learning more personal to them through differentiated instruction and interventions. And multiple assessment strategies allow students to differentiate how they demonstrate their mastery and find the ways that work best for them.

4. What are the best ways to help students stressed by assessments?

The best way to help students stressed by assessment is to first adopt assessment practices that are designed not just to measure student learning but to inform and drive it. We should be using assessments as a starting place, not a finish line.

If you think back to when you were in school, a test usually represented your last chance to demonstrate understanding of what your teacher expected you to learn. If you did poorly or failed, that was it; you missed out, your grade suffered, and the teacher moved on to the next concept or chapter in the book. This practice hasn’t changed much in many classrooms and it creates stress and unknowable anxiety for students.

I have always believed that if teachers solicit data from students, especially in the form of a test, they have a moral obligation to use that information to directly benefit that student. In other words, once we know what a student knows and doesn’t know, the work of helping struggling students begins.

It’s important that students today understand the goal of assessment is simply for teachers to better understand exactly where they are so they can help them grow. When we, the educators, place more value on using assessments to help students learn, rather than as a summary of learning that results in a simple score in the gradebook, it will go a long way toward taking the stress out of assessment and embracing a growth mindset.

Trenton Goble is VP of K–12 product strategy at Instructure.

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