The best post-COVID assessment approach may not be what you think.
We have just completed an extraordinarily challenging school year in which students received a wide range of learning experiences. Some students received large amounts of face-to-face instruction, some received mostly online instruction, and some received a mix of the two. In many districts, chronic absenteeism nearly doubled, exceeding 20% in Connecticut schools and reaching 40% in urban schools in Ohio.
Teachers are understandably concerned about how to address the wide range of student needs that they expect to see at the beginning of the next school year. Although perhaps more extreme, the situation is similar to a normal school year; students always come back to school with a range of needs after various degrees of summer slide.
Many teachers might fall back on the standard approach to remediation: when students arrive back at school, give them a diagnostic assessment to discover gaps in their knowledge and assign remediation (perhaps in tiers) to address those gaps.
But there’s a better way.
The Problems with Diagnostic Assessment
Diagnostic assessment, like other types of assessment, serves a meaningful purpose in its own time and place. However, just because it’s standard practice to start the school year with a diagnostic assessment doesn’t mean it’s best practice.
One problem with upfront diagnostic assessment is that it’s likely to identify much more remediation than students really need. With the irregular instruction that students experienced in the 2020-21 school year, students are likely to arrive back at school with what we call “unfinished learning”—partial knowledge—rather than complete gaps. This unfinished learning might show up on a traditional assessment as an inability to answer a question, but the path to mastery is likely much shorter than teachers might assume from just seeing the results on an exam.
Another reason why diagnostic assessment at the beginning of the year, especially this year, is not optimal is that motivational factors are at play. Students may perform worse on the diagnostic simply because they haven’t been in normal school mode for a year. Welcoming them back with a high-stakes test might be discouraging for many students, resulting in even lower performance that does not accurately reflect their knowledge and skill set.
What Should Replace Diagnostic Assessment?
Grade-Level Learning Acceleration. A good alternative to a diagnostic assessment when students come back to school is to start with grade-level material and remediate only when needed. This just-in-time approach is called learning acceleration, and education experts increasingly favor it over the typical combination of diagnostic assessment and remediation.
We have data that shows that this grade-level learning acceleration approach works.
Our analysis of data collected from almost 100,000 students using our MATHia software shows that most students are able to complete grade-level material if they’re given appropriate support to do so. MATHia continually assesses the student as they work through grade-level material and provides support right when students need it. The associated LiveLab dashboard alerts teachers to places where students need help on prerequisites. By setting high expectations for students and providing support for students to meet those expectations, this approach addresses students’ cognitive and motivational needs.
Formative Assessment. Relying more on formative assessment than summative or diagnostic assessments offers other benefits as well. Instead of solely relying on student performance on test day, each class day counts for students. Since assessment is based on a wider range of activities, teachers can get a more complete picture of each student’s abilities.
Additionally, formative assessment means there is no teaching to the test, since the test is embedded in everyday instruction. As a result, tasks can be more authentic and include collaborative activities.
This approach addresses students’ cognitive and motivational needs by setting high expectations and providing targeted support to meet them.
The Assessment Road Less Traveled
One of the biggest lessons we learned from this past year is that changing long-standing practices in education can be immensely beneficial for students and teachers. Let’s rethink the traditional approach of diagnostic assessment and follow the data down the less-traveled road of learning acceleration, where students start on grade-level and receive needed support along the way. Our students will thank us.
Steve Ritter is Founder and Chief Scientist at Carnegie Learning. He has been developing, analyzing and evaluating educational technology for over 20 years. He earned his Ph.D. in Cognitive Psychology at Carnegie Mellon University and was instrumental in the development and evaluation of the Cognitive Tutors for mathematics. He is the author of numerous papers on the design, architecture and evaluation of Intelligent Tutoring Systems and other advanced educational technology. He currently leads the research team at Carnegie Learning, focusing on improving the educational effectiveness of its products and services. Each year, over 500,000 students use Carnegie Learning’s mathematics curricula.Explore more related to this author