Testing with Tech: The Role of Technology in Supporting and Enhancing Assessment

January 29, 2007

Barbara Means | Grant Wiggins | Bruce Alberts

Barbara Means

Vice President, Policy Division, SRI International

If you imagine each of the students in a class with some kind of a handheld computing device, which is not farfetched today -- maybe it was five years ago but it's not today -- and you imagine a teacher is, for example, teaching a principle in physics and asks the students to predict what would happen to the trajectory of a ball if you're rotating around in a circle and let loose the ball at a certain position. You have each of the students actually draw what that trajectory might look like.

We could take almost any other example, that in a moment in time, could give the teacher a picture of what the kids do and do not understand about the principles that are going to be studied. Having that picture can identify common kinds of misconceptions and, certainly after a piece of instruction, it can identify that which we know often happens in physics classes, which is: the beautiful lecture is given, the students listen attentively, they take notes, and they still don't really understand the concepts underneath it.

And so if we start thinking about having unobtrusive ways within classrooms to capture student performances in the course of learning, that's something I think technology can really help support, as well as being able to support the maintenance of an organized archive or record of these student performances over time. The idea is to have a system that keeps a record but that is very unobtrusive on the surface -- one that just blends into the course of activity.

You can see that in some of the prototype technology-supported assessments being developed today -- they're presented in terms of puzzles or projects with things kids explore on the Web. It doesn't feel like a test. It doesn't feel like an assessment. It feels like an interesting activity that you're doing on the computer that presents opportunities for students to express their understanding or their skill in a certain way. Then underneath the surface, where the student doesn't have to worry about that, all those can be accumulated over time to give a profile of student's strengths and weaknesses.

Grant Wiggins

President, Grant Wiggins & Associates

Technology, I think, has a vital role to play in project-based work and in more robust assessment. Once we get beyond the idea that assessment is more than just quizzes and tests -- and that it's the documentation of whereby you make this case that the student has done something significant -- this body of evidence, if we want to stick with that judicial metaphor, proves the student actually learned something.

Technology is an obvious partner because whether it's on a CD-ROM, floppies, or an old-fashioned technology like video cameras or even overheads, the student is bringing together visual, three-dimensional, and paper-and-pencil work. We want to be able to document and have a trace of what the student has accomplished and how the student got there.

Having said that, I think sometimes technology is overused and we don't think carefully enough about the evidence we need to give the grade, put something on the transcript, and track that information over time. Many well-intentioned people say, "Let's have student portfolios of the student's work K-12." Well, that's fine for the student, but there's hardly another human being other than the kid's family that wants to wade through all that.

And that's actually another role of technology: It's a good database system -- information management, storage, and retrieval whereby we say, "I don't want to look through the whole portfolio. I want to just see some samples, some rubrics to get a sense of the student's current level of performance." Tracking information over time through technology is actually an important part of it as well.

Bruce Alberts

President, National Academy of Sciences

The academy spent a major three-year effort bringing some of the best experts in testing and assessment together to try to envision the future around testing and the two elements necessary to make a high-quality test, which are essential for really driving education in the right direction.

One of the elements is the promise of modern technologies -- computer technologies -- that in principle could allow you to do sophisticated testing on a large, inexpensive scale. The other component, of course, is our understanding of how students learn and our understanding of what's important to learn. So, we need to bring those two communities together to work on creating tests, and this committee had that kind of a mixture.

The report, Knowing What Students Know, just came out and it emphasizes the optimistic feeling that we can do it. That is, there are few cases where enough effort's been put in to create tests using the best information we have about learning, and combining that with sophisticated computer techniques.

There are enough examples of those to give people the feeling that we can, in principle and if we put enough research and effort into it, develop relatively low-cost tests that students could take even over the Web so that we could get to scale with these tests and that these kinds of tests would drive the right kind of teaching and learning.

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