Innovations in Assessment

High-quality assessments are essential tools for improving educational outcomes


Innovations in Assessment and New Measures

Since 2019, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Walton Family Foundation, in partnership with Education First and the Center for Assessment, have supported state agency and charter management leaders in conceptualizing, innovating and committing to equity through new assessment solutions.

The advent of spring in American schools usually means one thing: statewide tests in reading and math, and maybe in science too. For a generation of learners, student performance on standardized tests have shaped graduation rates, school-quality ratings, and measures of teacher effectiveness. Test scores have served as a tool to document opportunity gaps and informed efforts to improve learning outcomes among students of color, low-income students, students with disabilities, and English language learners. They are a critical, though imperfect, source of information about teaching and learning in U.S. schools.

However, public debate has focused on the shortcomings of traditional standardized assessments. From 2010 to 2020, moves by parents to opt their children out of annual testing grew sharply and state membership in testing consortiums shrank by half. While standardized testing programs are relatively inexpensive to run and provide a rich set of data for state leaders and policy makers, they also tend to focus on a narrow set of academic capabilities and have led some schools to emphasize test preparation over other types of learning. Many exams also bypass culturally relevant content and opportunities to demonstrate higher-order thinking and learning. Few assessments provide families with clear information about a student’s readiness for college or career. And results from once-a-year summative tests do not provide timely information for teachers.

The vast disruptions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic prompted states and school networks to pause standardized tests and ask hard questions about the role and influence of traditional, once-a-year exams. This amounted to an opportunity to reimagine and redefine K-12 assessment and accountability alongside the students, families, teachers, and school leaders most familiar with the possibilities and pitfalls of our current approach.

This opportunity underscored the need for efforts to reimagine assessments. The Innovations in Assessment and New Measure Grant Program, launched in 2019 by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Walton Family Foundation, and Education First was developed to support this work. The grant program supports a new approach to assessment that measures student learning across multiple domains and captures their readiness for college or career, while continuing to provide the detailed data that an equitable approach to accountability requires. The grant program also supports a new approach to creating assessments: one that uses equitable, human-centered design principles to more broadly share planning and decision-making power and builds on the expertise of the people most proximate to the problem.

Five grantees are developing new measures to assess student learning across multiple domains. In contrast to traditional, top-down program design, these grantees are engaged with this work at the grassroots level, with a particular focus on how institutional, systemic, or ideological biases influence the experiences of some individuals and groups. All innovations must have the potential to: 1) disaggregate data for essential student populations, 2) scale state or organization wide, and 3) integrate within the state accountability system in the future. To develop these innovations, grantees are using human-centered equitable design principles and practices which build on the expertise and experiences of students, families, and educators (informed by Christine Ortiz’s methodology2).

The experiences of these grantees using equitable design can inform assessments that more fully meet the needs of students, families, teachers, and school leaders. While no one test will perfectly assess all that we need to know about student learning, a richer menu of options and base of knowledge rooted in the direct experiences of the people most proximate to the problem can support the high-quality measures of learning that all students and educators deserve. Such measures can capture the breadth of student achievement, with explicit connections to the broad range of knowledge and skills that nurture thriving adults across diverse cultures and communities.

Ortiz Guzman, Christine M., Just Design, The equityXdesign Book.

Learn more about the work of each team in our progress report Read the report

Exploring the Problem

January to May 2020

Grantees defined the people most proximate to the problem (PPP) — students, families, teachers, leaders — and engaged them in empathy interviews, open-ended conversations about their experiences, and survey research. Through this, teams expanded their understanding of the end-user experience, their own biases and power dynamics and how the assessment system may perpetuate inequity.

Before developing solutions, teams reflected on historic context and engaged in root-cause analysis to explore the challenges that surfaced, including how power dynamics, traditional resource flows, and mental models contribute to assessments that do not yet fully meet the needs of PPP.

Developing Inclusive Solutions

May to November 2020

To think beyond traditional solutions, grantees engaged in multiple rounds of ideation as a team and with people most proximate to the problem. By ceding power to end-users, grantees envisioned new approaches to assessment that put the needs of traditionally underserved groups at the center.

Teams created a theory of action and developed plans to test prototypes, or pieces of their solution. By designing at the margins, this process helped dismantle assumptions about what, why and how outcomes should be measured, identified barriers to innovation, and generated new thinking about overcoming those barriers.

Prototyping Innovations

January to December 2021

Grantees developed little bets,” aspects of their solution they wanted to test with end-users to refine their innovations. Grantees used rapid-cycle prototyping, quick testing with a low-cost and easy method, to test multiple little bets with end-users, which led to changes and improvements to their assessment solution.

These small-scale tests, rather than fully developed pilots, allowed grantees to think by doing, to grow their understanding of how the innovation could work while allowing for risk and failure.

Building Buy-In and Pilot Planning

January to June 2022

Grantees identified potential policy barriers to implementing and scaling their assessment solution and ways the assessment will complement state accountability rules, as well as engaged internal and external leadership and stakeholders to build buy-in and support.

Simultaneously, grantees developed a pilot implementation plan detailing the activities, milestones, monitoring plan and cost to pilot the assessment before scaling system-wide. As a part of this, grantees identified ways they will continue to engage PPP and infuse principles of equitable design.

Learn more about the work of each team

Download a PDF of the grantee case studies to learn more.

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