The end of testing.
One glimpse of this future can be found at School of One, a personalized learning program in New York City that was named one of Time magazine’s “50 Best Inventions of 2009.” School of One is an experiment not only in technology-based lessons and assessments but also in competency-based student progress. If a seventh grader is working at a fourth-grade level, instructors focus unapologetically on fourth-grade material—attempting to ensure that, as the student progresses, he has really developed the right fundamental understanding going forward. It’s a big adjustment for teachers and parents, but students respond in striking ways. Joel Rose, former School of One CEO and now co-founder of New Classrooms, says that when students see that assessment results are used, in real time, to help them learn, then their entire relationship with testing changes—so much so that they often naturally draw their own clear distinction between the one-shot “tests” that they face in other classes and ongoing “assessments.”
The coming revolution in stealth assessment is not without potential dangers, pitfalls, and unintended consequences. If students perceive that the constant monitoring is meant primarily to judge them, rather than help them improve, then they may be less likely to experiment or take risks with their learning. Worse still, it’s conceivable that teachers would just find new ways to teach to the test, focusing their instruction on how to beat a computerized assessment algorithm rather than how to solve a challenging physics problem.
Eric Klopfer, director of MIT ’s Education Arcade and a proponent of stealth assessment, warns against a superficial “gamification” of learning. Just as in traditional classrooms, where the use of gold stars and special awards is only as sound as the underlying relationships among students and teachers, adding game-like rewards to educational lessons only works if the game itself is rewarding. If you give students a reward for things they don’t want to do, Klopfer says, then students stop doing those things as soon as the reward stops. It takes good instruction to challenge and engage learners. The best intrinsic motivation isn’t a flashy game, Klopfer says, but “success through meaningful accomplishments.”
Still, stealth assessments are at a very early stage in their development, having yet to be proven in a large scale trial. Their drawbacks, kinks, and breakthroughs will no doubt become far more clear—and perhaps more manageable—over time. Numerous big experiments are on their way. As Popovic works on Refractions—which has been played by more than 100,000 people at this point—he’s also building the equivalent of an open-source plat -form to accelerate others’ efforts, in hopes of shaving off the time it takes to develop games with embedded assessment from scratch. Ultimately, his goal is to crowdsource designs for new games and assessment challenges from both educators and students. Dynamic Learning Maps, a consortium of thirteen states that was awarded $22 million in federal funding to develop new assessments for students with significant cognitive disabilities, plans to embed items and tasks in day-to-day instruction to map a student’s learning over the course of a year. Klopfer just received a $3 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to develop a massively multiplayer online game to help high school students learn math and biology. And Pearson, the giant education publisher, led a $33 million investment in Knewton. It’s hard to tell, but at this pace it’s conceivable that the sit-down-stop-everything-else test may, within the decade, seem as old-fashioned as counting tubes of toothpaste on a supermarket shelf.
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