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Technology to Bring an Assessment 'Renaissance,' Pearson Report Contends

The combination of new digital technologies and a growing sense that current models of schooling no longer work portend big changes in educational assessment, according to a new paper from educational corporation Pearson. 

I know, I know: It's shocking to hear one of the world's largest K-12 assessment providers saying the world needs new and better K-12 assessments.  But let's hear what they're thinking.

The key elements, write Michael Barber, the chief education advisor for the giant company with headquarters in London and New York, and Peter Hill, a consulting assessment expert, include:

  • Greater use of online testing environments, which allow for multiple versions of the same test to be efficiently administered;
  • Adaptive technologies that target test items to individual students based on their skill level and can "generate more accurate estimates of student abilities across the full range of achievement while reducing testing time";
  • New platforms capable of measuring "deep learning and a range of inter- and intra-personal competencies and character traits"; and
  • Automated scoring systems that help "improve accuracy and reduce the time teachers spend marking 'rote' answers."

"We believe that the possibility now exists to bring about an assessment renaissance that will help secure a floor of high standards for all, remove current achievement ceilings and support a focus on those higher-order thinking and inter- and intra-personal skills vital for living and learning in the twenty-first century," Barber and Hill write.Michael Barber.jpg

Released today, "Preparing for a Renaissance in Assessment" seeks to put changes in K-12 testing in the context of a broader "education revolution" they argue is taking place. Assumptions that underpin current systems—that curriculum should emphasize breadth over depth; that schools, not individual students, should be the focus of educational policy; and that teaching should remain a "heavily unionized, bureaucratically controlled 'semi-profession'"—need to be repudiated, Barber and Hill argue.

The paper follows a March report from the company, titled "Impacts of the Digital Ocean on Education," which argued that constant streams of data from digital tools would blur the line between assessment and instruction. 

As with so much else in digital education these days, it's all about greater personalization and customization of teaching and learning. 

Current assessment systems and tools—from class grades to high-stakes standardized tests—reveal little about what students actually know and can do, the paper says. Existing systems also provide inadequate formative feedback that students and teachers can use in the classroom and too often "carry undue weight in high-stakes decision-making."

In addition to the seemingly irresistible force of digital technology, Barber and Hill contend, there is openness to new ways of thinking about assessment because "top-performing countries [including the U.S.] have hit a 'performance ceiling.'" 

Evidence from international exams, most notably the PISA, show that very few advanced educational systems have made any notable progress over the past decade or so, Barber said in an email.  

Now, lots of people out there warn that it's wrong to put too much stock in these types of international comparisons

But Pearson apparently doesn't agree.  Barber said that changes in testing alone won't break the logjam, but they are an integral part of efforts to improve.

Once assessments systems more in line with the principles and technologies described above are implemented, the Pearson officials write, they can be used "to collect a wide range of information on multiple dimensions and outcomes" and "to mine far more information from students' responses, thus enabling a more well-rounded and complete picture of a student's achievements and capabilities."

There is already movement in that direction, Barber and Hill write. Future efforts are likely to have a "zigzag trajectory, with some setbacks, failures of nerve, and entrenched resistance to change in certain quarters."

But the authors cast these changes as a revolution in the making, with the force of history behind them.

Again, given Pearson's role in the K-12 assessment market—the company has been awarded $63 million and counting for services related to U.S. common-core assessments alone—that perspective is 100 percent unsurprising.

But at the same time, given the company's enormous reach and influence, it's illustrative to get this kind of under-the-hood peak at what their leading minds are thinking about.

Photo of Michael Barber courtesy of Pearson.


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