03/15/2012 | 4 mins |

Pop Quiz: How Can Measurement Improve Student Learning?

03/15/2012 | 4 mins |

This week, Matt Forti is excited to welcome Lija McHugh, a manager in Bridgespan’s education practice. In this guest post, Lija paints a powerful picture as to why the education field needs to move towards measurement as a continuous improvement tool to drive increases in student learning.

I’ll admit I don't remember much about my elementary and secondary schooling experience, but I can still very clearly hear my Algebra teacher saying, "Clear your desks—we're going to take a pop quiz," followed by groans from the class. Why did he always say WE are taking a quiz? He wasn’t taking it. Except in a way, he was. The pop quizzes told him if we were actually learning what he was teaching.

Understanding students' learning progress—as frequently as possible—is critical for teachers to continuously improve their instruction and do their jobs well. And teachers doing their jobs well is critical if more students are to develop the competencies required for success in college and career. So why is it that we keep focusing on annual measures? End-of-year statewide tests do not provide teachers with the real-time information they need to improve their work with students every day.

Sure, summative assessment through annual standardized testing and No Child Left Behind accountability measures play important roles in improving the system, and have indeed shined a spotlight on students' learning progress (or lack thereof), as well as the huge achievement gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged students. These assessments are important to inform decision making at the school, district, and state levels, but they don’t provide the information teachers need to take action for each individual student in their classrooms.

Great teachers already know this and are hungry for ways to measure and understand their students’ every-day progress. Unfortunately, they have two mediocre options. The first is to create their own formative assessments (like my Algebra teacher’s pop quizzes). This is incredibly tough—designing assessments that reliably tell you whether students are learning key concepts is a complex and arduous process, and requires training, time, and resources most teachers don’t have. Teachers' other main option is to use formative assessments from the district or curriculum provider. The problem historically is that these end up being relatively blunt instruments that have the felt experience of mini-standardized tests to both teachers and students. Like most of the lousy standardized tests we have out there, they play to the middle of the bell curve and give you very limited accurate information on where the full range of your students actually are achieving.

However, there are a few glimmers of hope where formative assessment of student learning is happening systematically and intentionally.

The Commonwealth of Kentucky has emerged as a leader in implementation of the new Common Core student learning standards. Kentucky's approach is largely driven by effective formative assessment practices—in particular, the Classroom Assessment for Student Learning principles developed by Rick Stiggins. Educators across Kentucky are working together to understand the standards, develop short assessments to monitor students’ progress during and after lessons, and collectively review the results and determine how to improve their instruction the next day. (View informative modules and videos describing Kentucky’s approach.)

Kentucky’s work is not about layering on more and more assessments. It’s about using a balanced assessment system to measure and understand students’ progress through different types of assessments and at different intervals to truly help teachers understand where students are and get them to where they need to be. And with teachers working together to create the assessments, the hope is that they are actually useful, valid, reliable tools that enable teachers to take action and fuel student learning.

Technology is emerging as a potential enabling mechanism for real-time assessment. One example of the role technology could play is Khan Academy, a free, online video-based learning platform recently featured on 60 Minutes. The website has over 3,000 videos that explain key concepts in multiple subjects. The platform is now being piloted in 23 schools as a way to integrate online and in-classroom individualized learning. In pilot classrooms, teachers have a dashboard to monitor students’ learning progress in real time. The color-coded dashboard screen quickly draws teachers’ attention to which students need extra assistance and on which concepts in particular. Using technology platforms like Khan Academy could help teachers make effective use of classroom time to quickly home in on and address the areas where students are struggling most. Preliminary results from these pilots show improvements in student learning, particularly for those who were farthest behind.

Our education system is mired in mediocrity. Only a third of students finish high school with the competencies required for success in college and career. We need to see dramatic increases in student learning if we expect to have a globally competitive workforce. Teachers can drive those increases, but annual high stakes tests and accountability measures will not enable them to do so. It's time to focus on continuous instructional improvement informed by frequent real-time measures—even if that means we hear more students groaning over another pop quiz.

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