Student assessment in an uncertain time: Current realities and new possibilities

As COVID-19 expands the opportunity gap, blended learning becomes essential to support students
By: | July 8, 2020
Photo by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention via Unsplash.
Jessie Woolley-Wilson is CEO and president of DreamBox Learning.

Jessie Woolley-Wilson is CEO and president of DreamBox Learning.

While schools may be closed for summer, district leaders are working tirelessly to determine how to reopen safely, reconnect with their students after months apart, and measure where students are in their learning. Administrators find themselves addressing these tough questions amid a heightened awareness and (long overdue) discussion about racial injustice and inequities in U.S. schools.

Now is the time for school leaders to rethink education as we know it. Let’s throw out the old playbook. Together — school leaders and edtech partners alike — we can pave the way for all students to receive a high-quality education regardless of race, gender, or zip-code.

To determine a path forward, it’s important to recognize where we stand today. The reality is many minority students experience a very different education than white students. Not only do predominately brown and black schools have fewer high-quality teachers, but studies also show that minority students receive below-grade content compared to their white counterparts who receive on-grade (or above grade) content.

Unfortunately, COVID-19 has exacerbated these inequities. As schools shifted to remote learning, many students, especially minority students and those living in rural areas, lack access to broadband or devices needed to continue learning. Teachers quickly lost contact with these students – increasing the risk of learning loss.


Read: Here are the key questions to answer to safely reopen schools


These inequities, combined with the lack of data around where students are in their learning, have left educators wondering when schools do reopen in the fall, how do they efficiently measure student growth without the luxury of using traditional tools that require students to be at school?

Through effective blended learning models, education leaders can change how we evaluate student growth to create a more equitable educational experience. Instead of assessing subject understanding with a single test, student assessment should be continuous and longitudinal, ensuring more reliable data, and allowing teachers to intervene earlier and more – or less! – often as new information comes to light.

Below are key changes that I see school leaders considering to establish more effective and equitable assessment practices:

1. The transition from summative to formative assessments will accelerate.
One way to address the opportunity gap is to break K-12 out of the testing cycle. Rather than “teaching to a test,” educators should focus on providing the right lessons to meet students’ unique learning needs. There is a better way to get reporting and data, and the process of collecting it doesn’t need to take time away from learning.

2. Education technology will be essential in measuring student performance continuously.
Educators need education technology partners that can not only provide student growth data – with no additional testing or an inordinate amount of student time using the technology – but also deliver the additional context and meaning behind the data. Rather than merely offering high-level data around questions that a student got “right” and “wrong,” education technology can provide invaluable insight into how the student solved the problem and the specific strategies used.


UPDATED: Hundreds of free K-12 resources during COVID-19


The good news is these predictive analytics solutions exist and educators across the U.S. are leveraging education technology to deliver these insights. However, we need private industry, government, and nonprofits to come together and expand broadband and device access so all students and educators can benefit from these tools.

3. Test scores will no longer be the driving, stress-inducing force in determining a student’s needs for differentiation; rather comprehension and understanding in competency-based, student-centered assessment models will be key.
This has been a difficult time for all, students included. Like everyone, students have elevated levels of stress and have been concerned about life with the virus, which has also disproportionately impacted minority communities. Students don’t want the added stress from testing. But because growth and proficiency data are vital, we need a new approach.

This pandemic has disrupted education as we know it for the foreseeable future. Let’s take this consequential moment to ensure every student receives a high-quality learning experience.


Jessie Woolley-Wilson is President and CEO of DreamBox Learning® and holds an MBA from Harvard Business School and a BA from the University of Virginia. Jessie supports the broader education community by serving on several boards including Rosetta Stone, the Western Governors University Board of Trustees, and Ursuline Academy, and Forbes placed her on its “Impact 15” list for being a disruptor in education.