[Four Assessment Trends] Moving to Next-Generation Assessment Systems

Wednesday, January 7, 2015 -- Ketsia Hamilton

President Obama’s signature education grant program Race to the Top has brought significant changes to the US education system. Race to the Top centers on four major reforms designed to dramatically improve the way school systems function:

  • Adopting standards and assessments that prepare students to succeed in college and the workplace and to compete in the global economy
  • Building data systems that measure student growth and success and informing teachers and principals about how they can improve instruction
  • Recruiting, developing, rewarding, and retaining effective teachers and principals, especially where they are needed most
  • Turning around our lowest-achieving schools.1

Of the reform goals, the mandate to develop rigorous standards and better assessments has been among the most controversial; however, it will provide the foundation needed to revolutionize the American education system to be one that leads in international benchmarking assessment results such as the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), rather than one that continues to stagnate.2 Under Race to the Top, the concept of next-generation assessment systems fundamentally changes the way schools and government agencies view and utilize assessments. There are four trends that occur as the nation moves to next-generation assessment systems.

1.       Using Multiple Measures

Moving from a singular high-stakes exam to a system of assessments

One shift in thought demands that multiple forms of assessment become an integral part of the learning process. Assessment systems designed to include formative, interim, and summative components, along with technological innovations to evaluate more complex applications of learning, are being embraced by states and local school districts.

Next-generation assessments have gained popularity in the classroom because they provide teachers with resources to benefit the formative assessment process. The policy group Formative Assessment for Students and Teachers (FAST) has created the State Collaboratives on Assessment and Student Standards (SCASS), which defines formative assessment as:

A process used by teachers and students during instruction that provides feedback to adjust ongoing teaching and learning to improve students’ achievement of intended instructional outcomes.3

The goal of formative assessment is to improve learning. Both the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and Smarted Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) have designed their systems of assessments to support this objective. For example, PARCC includes both diagnostic and midyear assessments to inform learning. By the summer of 2015, the diagnostic assessments for Grades 2–8 will become available. According to Coming Together to Raise Achievement, “PARCC is developing an array of ‘ready-to-use’ formative assessment tools” for K–1 teachers. “The tools will be embedded in the curriculum and fit within regular instruction so as to be ‘invisible’ to the student. The ELA/literacy tools will focus on fluency, decoding, vocabulary, reading comprehension, and using and analyzing information sources for writing. The mathematics tools will provide information regarding each student’s progress toward the standards and practices to be identified in the forthcoming K–2 Model Content Frameworks for K–1.”4 The PARCC digital library will provide educators access to resources that deepen understanding of assessed standards.

Smarter Balanced also offers interim assessments and a comprehensive Digital Library that educators can use to engage students in application of the standards and uncover knowledge gaps to determine the next steps for instruction.

2.       Increasing the Use of Technology

Using technology-enhanced item types to assess at a deeper level and provide more timely results

Each consortium leverages the use of technology to deliver computer-based assessments that evaluate a broader range of knowledge and skills at a deeper level as defined by the rigorous Common Core State Standards (CCSS). The computer-based assessments can also deliver more timely results. Educators utilize tools, such as Webb’s Depth of Knowledge (DOK), to understand the cognitive demands of the standards and assist them in designing the most beneficial learning activities and assessment tasks. 

In Webb’s DOK tasks increase in complexity at each level, moving from basic fact recall in Level 1 up through synthesis and application of information in Level 4. This requires students to become more thoughtful and creative when applying their knowledge.

For example, the following questions serve as examples of how students may be asked to demonstrate their competence of a subject at a DOK Level 3 (Strategic Thinking):

  • What is the theme/the lesson learned?
  • How would the theme change if …?
  • What underlying bias is there?
  • What inferences will these facts support?
  • What evidence can you find to support ...?

When considering assessment, there are many different kinds of technology-enhanced item types that can be used to gauge whether the student has mastered the standards (this resource shows ten examples). Additionally, using technology increases the accessibility of assessments across diverse student populations and is of vital importance in promoting goals for equity in education.

Dr. Jim Pelligrino, a member of the Technical Advisory Committees for both consortia, states, “much of what is new, different, and important in the Common Core State Standards cannot be adequately assessed by conventional methods, items, and measurement models.” 5 The complexity of the standards pushes the item-development process to evidence-centered design (ECD). Students successfully completing items based on ECD demonstrate competency in critical thinking—a key indicator of college and career readiness.

The shift toward computer-based assessments is ongoing, and states have had varied success. In a report by the Center on Education Policy released in 2013, survey results indicated that 34 states faced challenges with various aspects of preparing to administer the CCSS-aligned assessments. These challenges included ensuring that schools had adequate Internet access and bandwidth and sufficient numbers of computers to administer the online assessments.

3.       Focusing on Growth and Current Status

Using multiple data points to drive instruction and identify educator effectiveness

Summative assessments reflect what students have learned, and scores on those assessments are also indicative of teacher performance.  As we move into operational assessments for the new PARCC and SBAC assessments, debate continues around delaying the use of the results for accountability purposes.6

However, as part of the commitment to Race to the Top, states have expanded how educator effectiveness is measured beyond the summative test. Part of the new system is to include more emphasis on the professional practice of education and multiple assessment points as evidence of student growth. There are multiple models that can be utilized, and each state has its own approach to calculating student growth.7, 8 Two models that have been defined are:

  • Value-Added Models (VAM) — There are many ways to construct VAMs, but they typically rely on two or more years’ data from state assessments administered in consecutive grades. Two states that are currently working to implement VAMs are New York and Colorado.
  • Student Learning Objectives (SLO) — An SLO is a process in which teachers and principals set a specific learning goal and a specific measure of student learning used to track progress toward that goal. Progress can be measured in different ways: an end-of-course exam given by teachers, a portfolio of student work, or even a state test. There is great variation in how states implement SLOs as part of the evaluation process. Some states develop SLOs based on teams of teachers or grade levels or utilize schoolwide SLOs. Other states require individual teachers to develop SLOS, including Ohio, Georgia and Rhode Island.

 4.       Differentiating Roles

Identifying the specific roles those at the federal, state, and local levels need to take

The synergy between components of next-generation assessment systems is rooted in the clear delineation of roles and responsibilities of the government in order to reach desired goals.

  • Federal Role — To enact legislation and provide funding
  • State Role — To develop a plan and build the infrastructure to meet reform efforts in partnership with local education agencies
  • Local Role— To develop a plan and provide guidance to:
    • Implement standards
    • Provide resources (curriculum, technology, professional development, etc.)
    • Set expectations for learning

If you are interested in learning more about the roles of the different levels of government in education, this policy statement from the National Governor’s Association is a great resource.

Race to the Top and its four major reforms have shaken up the educational landscape in our country in a big, and sometimes intimidating, way. Amidst the political upheaval around standards and assessments, policymakers are keenly aware that excellence in education is fueled by raising expectations and working toward common goals. With that in mind, the most important thing for educators to do is stay informed. Many great resources (like this map of 2014–2015 state assessment plans) are available. Utilize these resources to familiarize yourself with standards, assessment practices, and emerging technology, and then navigating the Race to the Top transitions will be a successful experience. 

Want to learn about how Edmentum can be a valuable partner in your 21st century classroom? Check out our Solutions page!



1 Executive Summary:  http://www2.ed.gov/programs/racetothetop/executive-summary.pdf

2 PISA Results:  http://www.oecd.org/pisa/keyfindings/PISA-2012-results-US.pdf

3 FAST SCASS:  http://www.ccsso.org/Documents/FASTLabels.pdf

4Coming Together: http://www.k12center.org/rsc/pdf/coming_together_march_2014_rev_1.pdf

5 Pellegrino: http://www.k12center.org/rsc/pdf/session_2_pelligrino_tea_2012.pdf


7 http://educationnext.org/choosing-the-right-growth-measure

8 http://www2.ed.gov/about/inits/ed/implementation-support-unit/tech-assist/measures-of-learning.pdf