EdTech must escape the clutches of high-stakes testing

EdTech is a double-edged sword. It promises to liberate educators from tired conventions, but it also threatens to reinforce broken pedagogies. Which way it goes is a conscious choice for EdTech innovators.

In the stupor of testing

This is especially true of assessment. High-stakes standardised testing has long held the Education community in its grip. Testing itself is critical part of the educational experience, but its use as a rigid accountability tool has stifled learning and teaching.

If EdTech innovators sit idly by, their solutions will be forced to converge to the dominant forms of assessment.

What a waste of potential that would be.

The disruptive potential of digital assessment

Digital learning tools built on continuous assessment are poised to disrupt the ways in which testing is used in Education. Here are the headlines:

  • They displace the snapshot judgements of summative assessments with a more refined scale that focuses on learning processes.
  • The ability to monitor students’ actions continuously may pave the way for capturing their learning habits, as well as so-called non-cognitive traits such as grit and mindset.
  • They enable a shift from assessment of learning to assessment for learning, empowering teachers with the diagnostic insights they need to understand and meet each child where they are.
  • They lowers the stakes — and therefore the anxiety — around any individual assessment and remove the temptation of teaching to a single, narrow test.
  • They do not rely heavily on any single assessment to evaluate student learning, and thus reduce much of the measurement error that compromises the fidelity of traditional tests.

Pitch over — evidently there is much to be excited by. But EdTech’s chequered past urges caution.

A short history of failed expectations

Education is notoriously resistant to change. For over a century new technologies have been pushed into the classroom with little to show for all the hype. Motion pictures were supposed to make textbooks obsolete. Radio and then television were going to revitalise instruction. And interactive boards would transform the classroom environment forever. A litany of failed promises. In every case, innovators conformed to narrow pedagogies rather than challenge them.

The legacy of today’s EdTech innovators will be determined on the testing battleground. They will be condemned to a similar fate to their predecessors unless they inspire a new paradigm for assessment.

Test scores: The language of educational impact

Learning outcomes have become inseparable from test scores. Any discussion of educational impact —whether a research paper, policy brief, grant application or a white paper — is couched in the language of how students perform on standardised tests. In the US, policymakers have propped up testing, and intensified the stakes, ever since No Child Left Behind.

Policy forces acceptance at every level of the education system. Since test performance directly informs funding to districts and schools, it’s no surprise that teachers and administrators gravitate to products wrapped in the promise of increased test scores.

EdTech providers fit neatly into this narrative. They showcase impact studies that correlate usage on their product with increased test scores. They desperately seek to meet accepted standards such as those of What Works ClearingHouse. For all their rigour, these standards dare not challenge test scores as the dominant measure of student learning.

And so the education community remains deeply entrenched in the paradigm of narrow assessment.

EdTech providers have a choice to make. They can amplify longstanding attitudes towards assessment that focus on singular academic traits. Or they can inspire a move towards broader, more reliable forms of assessment.

Breaking the cycle

Any shift towards new assessment models will require time and patience. In the interim, high-stakes testing should not be dismissed outright. As long as the stakes remain high, students and teachers will depend on test scores. The onus is on innovators to develop solutions that support broader measurement while raising test scores as a by-product.

Without that conscious effort, solution providers will retreat to the existing assessment paradigm and will ultimately be limited by it, leaving Education trapped in the stupor of test scores.


Originally posted on my personal blog.

I am a research mathematician turned educator working at the nexus of education, innovation and technology. Come say hello on Twitter or LinkedIn.

If you liked this article you might want to check out two of my other pieces: EdTech’s culture problem and Relationships before scale.

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