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How Technology Is Helping To Provide Better Student Assessment

Julie Petersen, independent writer, and editor in the education space, sat down to discuss the impact of technology on student assessment. Petersen points out how the future of assessment looks promising as the emphasis is diverted away from "top-down" testing and replaced by greater day-to-day, individual student analysis. Insightfully, Petersen examines how technological advances can act as freeing mechanisms that remove some time-consuming elements of teaching, allowing for a better focus on 21st Century higher learning skills.

Rod Berger: Well Julie, I'm looking forward to this conversation because I think we don't often sit down with those that are analyzing the field as much as we probably should. We're relying on data, and sometimes resources that are self-serving. We're looking at big questions and big topics on EdTech in a way in which we're using technology and solving problems that are not only impacting us today but will be affecting our students and teachers in the very near future.

Given that, I want to talk about assessment. A lot of people are saying the way in which we look at assessment is currently broken. We can approach it differently, in ways that will not only impact a teacher in the classroom but will affect students in their K-20 experience and college readiness. With that shaping the landscape, tell me from your perspective in analyzing the market, where is it broken and what are some of the first steps we can take to provide a different experience for both students and teachers?

Julie Petersen: Yes, absolutely. I think the place we're at right now in assessment is a promising one in a sense that the field of education reform and EdTech over the last 15 or so years has come a long way. We have finally come to some agreement about what students need to know and be able to do through the development of standards and the development of assessments to measure those standards. We can see what kids from prosperous neighborhoods, inner city neighborhoods and everywhere in between are accomplishing. We have made a lot of progress in terms of shining a spotlight on making sure kids are ready – making sure all kids are ready for college and career.

Where we are broken a little bit is in those assessments. The assessments that were developed to assess standards and assess every student's abilities became unwieldy, really big, and really time-consuming. They were developed to give policymakers information about whether or not students were meeting all the standards. They're very top down and at a distance from the way schools operate on a day-to-day basis.

The future of assessment is promising right now in that people have realized this isn't the right way to get the information those parents, students, and teachers need to make sure kids are learning on a day-to-day basis. It's been great they've given us a big picture level insight into how students, schools, and teachers are doing. But in order to get the information that kids, teachers, and parents need on a day-to-day or week-to-week basis, we have to bring it back down to the common grassroots and go from the bottom up.

A lot of the innovation and assessment is happening now on gathering day-by-day, (minute-by-minute in some cases) information about exactly what individual students are understanding and learning. We are turning around of data more quickly, bubbling it up in kind of a big data way so teachers, students, and parents, can see at a micro-level what progress looks like. It's a way to see where students are mastering things or failing things, as opposed to just waiting for the end of the year standardized test, waiting another six months, when those test results come back, and then it's too late. We've already moved into the next school year. It's too late we can't do anything with that information.

A lot of innovation and important things to technology is allowing us to get insight into how students are doing and what they need day-to-day.

RB: Julie, let's talk about the actual customer in this regards to students, teachers, and parents. Do you find that we're getting more savvy on that end about the types of things we want to look for when talking about the data and the response students are giving to the curriculum in their classrooms? For a long time, it was whatever is handed us; we took, and every six months we got the data back. It seems like questions are getting better from both parents and teachers, even the ways in which we're incorporating students into the process. Do you see the same thing?

JP: Yes. I think there are two streams of energy that are making me hopeful on that front. One is that the increasing number of innovations in the space whether they'd be EdTech companies, assessments, curriculum, or ideas coming out of the minds and experiences of teachers themselves. Teachers in charter schools and district schools were frustrated with having these top-down assessments handed down to them from giant monopolistic companies. We won't name any names there, (laugh), but the big players who have fewer and fewer teachers but more and more executives, or policymakers developing assessments.

There are interesting new companies out there that have been founded by educators who say, "Hey, I want to know exactly how my kids are doing. I want to be able to work with a program and know whether or not it's worth it. Just because a big company developed a program, it's not the stamp of approval I need. I need information coming back to me to understand how my kids are moving ahead in math or whether they're making progress in reading and writing."

The other strand of innovation happening right now is the trend toward student-centered learning. Foundations across the country, policymakers and many schools starting from scratch like charter schools, as well district schools, are trying to reorient themselves around this notion that students should be able to understand and take ownership in their learning. They understand what the goal is whether it’s college or a career or a particular college or a particular major. They can pull in different pieces of information; content knowledge, and skill mastery that relates to those goals. In an increasing number of schools, students can see on a day-to-day, week-to-week, month-to-month basis, how they're tracking toward those goals as opposed to, "I showed up for math class because someone told me that someday I might get into a good college." They're having a more crystallized, crisp understanding of where they're going, and how they're going to get there.

RB: Julie, let's talk a little about the technology because I think we're finally at that point where we can make better decisions about the technology that's offered to schools and districts. It's an interesting place when it comes to assessment because now we have the ability to profile or display student achievement and work in a much richer context than in the past. How does it impact not only the way in which we present information but when we fold it back in on itself, how does it affect curriculum and activities we're assessing because now we see it in a different light?

JP: Yes. I'm trying to think of the best place to start because it's a big question. (laugh) It starts with thinking about technology with a small "t," as a big, broad category that incorporates all the different sorts of resources and tools that you have to bring to bear to better student learning.

Students traditionally learned from the perspective of the "system" as a big industry, we thought less about individual needs and wanted all kids to have resources organized around the cheapest and easiest to provide to a lot to kids. Everyone gets the same fifth-grade textbook; they're all going to learn the same fifth-grade math text. Give them all the same kind of notebook; they're all going to deliver the same kind of writing.

I think we have moved away from believing that every kid needs the same stuff, toward believing that there's a foundation that everyone needs. But we should be enabling diversity, creativity, a collaboration of higher order skills and mastery across different student abilities. If you believe that every kid should get to a higher place but not the same place, then what you provide is different.

The technology can tap into different kinds of content based on where students are, their interests, and how they best learn. The technology is doing a great job of pulling from lots of different places at the same cost versus giving everyone the same thing because it's the cheapest and easiest thing to do.

RB: Julie, let's close with this. Let's look at the teacher for a moment. We talk about technology and educators, and we worry about adding a number of resources that they have to integrate into an already taxing day. When we talk about assessment and ways in which we share information, engage the student, and the family, it seems that this could be a real benefit to the teacher's experience with the student in a way that's different than an app or other technology. Do you see the same thing? What's your 10,000-foot view of finding technologies that can bring teachers into the conversation in a way that they can drive it in working with students?

JP: I think some of the most impressive and encouraging technologies out there are doing two things well. One is they're not adding something to the teacher's day, but they're taking something off of a teacher's shoulders. It's incredibly important in making sure that we leverage the hard-working teachers by not making them feel like they have to be the secretary, administrator, teacher, coach, and mentor. There are so many jobs that we ask teachers to do and adding something to their list is just not something that we want to be doing. Some of the best technologies out there are trying to say, "Look, we're going to take some of the burdens off of you having to calculate all your grades manually. We're going to take off the burden of you having to assess students on really basic things manually." They're trying to take some of the burdens off of the teacher's shoulders so that teachers can spend their time doing what they do best - which is figuring out how to reach individual kids and connect with them directly.

I think the second thing the best technologies are doing is helping students and teachers bypass the basic skills and personally advance students beyond into some of the more critical 21st-century skills; collaboration, creativity, and communication, areas that technology interestingly isn't very good at enabling. Technology can be great at instructing and reinforcing some of the most basic skills and bringing in rich examples, leaving time for kids and teachers to work together in small groups, one-on-one, engaging with one another in problem-solving capacities.

RB: So Julie, working in EdTech, in communications and analyzing, I would imagine that there's never a dull day for you. (laugh)

JP: (laugh) No, it never gets boring. There's always something new, and in fact, it can get a little overwhelming to try and keep up with that all.

RB: Well, it's been great to spend a couple of moments with you to talk about some of these trends around assessment.

For a more in-depth look at innovative assessment practices visit Julie Petersen's eBook

Snip20161019_29Julie Petersen, Freelance Writer/Editor and Communications Strategist. Julie Petersen is an independent consultant who has worked with education startups and nonprofits for over a decade, writing in formats ranging from research reports and magazine articles to Web site content and blog posts. She is a former technology journalist (Red Herring Magazine) and nonprofit communications director. (NewSchools Venture Fund) Julie Petersen Twitter.

Dr. Rod Berger, an industry leader in communications strategies for education companies, is a global education media personality featured on edCircuit, in EdTech Review India, Scholastic's District Administrator, and ForbesAs an industry personality, Dr. Berger has interviewed Ministers of Education, leading voices like Sir Ken Robinson, U.S. Secretary Arne Duncan, AFT President Randi Weingarten, and others.

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