A New Model and Method for Student Assessment – Part 1

“It’s easier to create a statistically valid test for content or for content-related mental processes, whereas it is difficult to measure something like critical thinking, and very difficult to measure something like courage. In short, there is too much focus on Knowledge.” — Charles Fadel

Charles Fadel believes there are flaws with the assessment system currently predominant in the United States. “Assessment boils down to evidence of learning,” but the important outcomes we should be evaluating in students are in fact the most “hard to measure” and subsequently these qualities are simply not being assessed. Balanced assessment is not a new debate. The key questions: Is there now a growing momentum for change, and if so, at what stage of the education process should the assessment begin? Do we have evidence of successful case studies? What things should be prioritized for change and how can modern technologies help to update an antiquated assessment system?

Today we begin a 2 part series on Assessment. Joining us in The Global Search for Education to discuss a new model of assessment for a 21st century world is Charles Fadel, founder of the Center for Curriculum Redesign (CCR). Fadel advocates for a holistic approach to 21st Century education as outlined in his book, Four-Dimensional Education: The Competencies Learners Need to Succeed.


“The room for growth is in the technology of assessment, and in attempts to measure what matters.” — Charles Fadel

Charles, what are we assessing that we shouldn’t need to? What should we be assessing instead?

Briefly, there is assessment designed for sorting students, and assessment designed for supporting students. The principal flaw with assessment is that currently, there is too much of a focus on sorting, and not enough on supporting (especially given that the sorting assessments are not even that good at sorting!). This is education for the sake of universities and employers, and not for the sake of students. Teachers’ and students’ time is wasted as they prepare and take assessments that are just looking to rank students’ performance rather than spending time engaged in authentic learning or working on socio-emotional and other competencies.

The qualities that are most “hard-to-measure” are often some of the most important. What ends up getting measured is what’s easiest to measure, and not necessarily what’s most important. Namely, it’s easier to create a statistically valid test for content or for content-related mental processes, whereas it is difficult to measure something like critical thinking, and very difficult to measure something like courage. In short, there is too much focus on Knowledge (and not particularly relevant knowledge!), and not enough on Skills, Character, and Meta-Learning. Creating formal assessment of these hard-to-measure qualities would not only help to elucidate whether students are making progress in these areas, but would help shift the attention back onto what’s important.

What are the key aspects of the assessment system that you believe it is realistic and practical to prioritize for change? What is your organization and others in the US doing to bring about change? Is there any broad momentum for change?

The room for growth is in the technology of assessment, and in attempts to measure what matters. We have organized a pre-competitive R&D consortium so that assessment makers can get onto the same (most cutting-edge) page about what the goals and technical possibilities are, and subsequently can use that information to develop their own competitive assessments. This follows a model used in many industries such as semiconductors, biotech, etc.; industry resources are pooled for cooperation in research, and then competition fuels innovation – in this case, in creation of modern assessments.

Our first paper has identified the key features that will likely be included in the kind of transformation that needs to occur:

  • Deeper Competency Models – stronger research-based models of the essential components and common progressions of learning competence.
  • Richer Performance Evidence – authentic, performance-based demonstrations of capabilities, using diverse methods and media to capture insightful evidence of learning progress.
  • Assessments FOR Learning – all assessment and evaluative efforts including a focus on supporting and motivating deeper and broader learning progress, beyond traditional student sorting.
  • Assessments AS Learning – embedded “stealth” assessments in online learning simulations and games, and evaluative “lifestream” personal data captured by sensors monitoring daily activities as authentic demonstrations of applied learning.
  • Integrating Multiple Methods – more effective triangulation of multiple assessment methods across the four educational dimensions, with deeper research on how these competency elements interact and can affect each other.
  • More Effective Assessment Use – better alignment between assessment uses and education goals, practices, improvement strategies, and education transformation.


“It will require approaching assessment holistically, with the learner in mind, and being innovative in methodologies.” — Charles Fadel

What will a new assessment vision/system require? How can new technologies now assist in bringing about the needed change in assessment?

It will require approaching assessment holistically, with the learner in mind, and being innovative in methodologies. Different types of assessments can be triangulated to give students, parents, and teachers (as well as policy makers, program evaluators, and universities, in some cases) a clearer, more psychologically valid, and more textured picture of learning and aptitude along many dimensions. New technologies can help with experimentation and development of more inherently useful tests. For example, imagine a videogame that teaches learners content as well as character qualities such as resilience and courage, and simultaneously assesses them based on a model of learning behind the scenes. The result is that the experience was worthwhile (and fun!) for the student, and the assessment outcome is useful as a diagnostic because it is psychologically valid.

At what stage of the education process should a changed assessment system start?

At the very beginning! We know that early interventions have the biggest effect, so from as early as students are currently being tested, they should be allowed to experience better tests. If the tests themselves are still distracting or stressful, then younger students should be spared, and allowed to focus on their learning. As the earlier grades provide the foundation for learning that is built upon for the rest of education (and life), changes in assessment earlier would have the most profound effects on students’ lives. Changing assessments later would be helpful for older students, but it cannot rewrite what they learned in the earlier grades.


“More qualitative data can now be stored and should be leveraged to show evidence of learning that goes deeper than a letter grade or a percentile score.” — Charles Fadel

Many educators believe we need both Big Data and Small Data in the student assessment process? How do you see the strengths and weaknesses of these different data in your new model for student assessment? What kinds of data have become more critical for high school and college assessment?

Assessment boils down to evidence of learning. Each type of evidence should be used for its strengths, and its weaknesses should be made up for by other types of evidence. Standardized assessments (as they currently stand) are strong in certain types of reliability and validity, and have some predictive power, but do not provide textured information about students’ understanding, and are not authentic tasks with inherent value for the learner. They can be complemented by Portfolio assessments, Rubrics, Self-Report surveys, and/or Performance assessments which can provide more texture for better instruction and get at more qualitative attributes that are important to measure.

Although the philosophy behind Balanced Assessment certainly is not new to education, the call for a system that uses multiple and varied measures of student performance has grown louder in recent years. While the push for higher levels of academic achievement and accountability continues to increase, more people have realized that a single test cannot provide a comprehensive evaluation of student performance. The state of Colorado has even gone as far as passing legislation that requires the inclusion of multiple student performance measures in teacher evaluations as well as the Unified Improvement Planning process for both schools and districts. More qualitative data can now be stored and should be leveraged to show evidence of learning that goes deeper than a letter grade or a percentile score.

This first appeared here.

About the Author
Author: C. M. RubinWebsite: http://www.cmrubinworld.com/
The Global Search for Education (GSE) is a regular contributor to EdTechReview. Authored by C. M Rubin GSE brings together distinguished thought leaders in education and innovation from around the world to explore the key learning issues faced by today's nations. The series has become a highly visible platform for global discourse on 21st century education.

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