How Can Teachers Better Understand Students? A New Breed of Assessment Will Try to Help

By Catherine Gewertz — July 21, 2021 4 min read
In this Nov. 19, 2020, file photo, sixth-grade students listen to instruction in class at Cape Cod Lighthouse Charter School in East Harwich, Mass.

Researchers and education entrepreneurs launched a project Wednesday that aims to create a new breed of assessments that will offer teachers a window into young students’ emerging identities and build on their strengths to enhance their learning.

The idea behind the program, called Assessment for Good, is to help teachers understand how students 8 to 13 years old are starting to see themselves in the world, culturally, socially, and academically, and how that constantly shifting sense of self takes shape—and can support—learning.

Leaders of the initiative want to create formative assessments that teachers could weave frequently into classroom instruction. Those tools and strategies would explore many facets of students’ identities, from how they think of themselves as learners to their race, gender, or disability, so they could better provide instruction that values the diversity of all their students, Temple Lovelace, the project’s director, said in an interview with Education Week.

“We want to take an identity-affirming, strength-based approach,” said Lovelace. “We want to look at what threads are emerging, what we can build on.”

Before leading Assessment for Good, Lovelace was an associate professor of special education and assessment at Duquesne University. One of her areas of focus was “eco behavioral assessment,” which tries to measure how ever-shifting factors in a student’s environment can affect their learning and behavior. She has a particular interest in reducing the disproportionate referral of Black students to special education.

It’s too early to know details of what the assessments will look like. Its organizers issued requests for information and proposals on Wednesday, hoping that teachers, researchers, and others will jump in with ideas to get the ball rolling.

Conducting research in new ways to address big problems

Assessment for Good is part of a larger initiative that’s focused on tackling education problems that disproportionately affect Black and Latino students, and those from low-income families. That initiative, the Advanced Education Research & Development Fund, or AERDF, is supported by $200 million from three foundations that work in the K-12 sector: The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and the Walton Family Foundation.

The first $50 million, awarded in 2019 by the Gates and Chan Zuckerberg philanthropies, supports a project called EF+Math, a cluster of research efforts that aim to enhance the executive functioning skills of Black and Latino students in grades 3-8 to boost their math proficiency.

With a new, additional $150 million from Gates, Chan Zuckerberg and Walton, AERDF was created recently to house EF+Math and Assessment for Good. By the end of 2023, three more projects will be added, all focused on addressing stubborn educational problems that disproportionately affect Black, Latino and low-income students, AERDF CEO Stacey Childress, who is also the CEO of the NewSchools Venture Fund, said during a call with reporters. Evaluations by independent researchers will track the effectiveness of each project, she said.

The AERDF projects will use an “inclusive R&D” approach, bringing together educators, researchers, and assessment designers from the start, “with all perspectives respected equally,” Childress said. They will also be guided by advisory councils that include educators, students, and caregivers.

The Assessment for Good project enters a landscape in which schools increasingly want to assess many more student characteristics than just math or reading ability. Many schools have been trying to teach and test social and emotional skills such as self-awareness, self-management, and responsible decisionmaking.

Schools are already using an array of products to measure those kinds of skills, such as student surveys, teacher rating scales, and performance-based assessments. Clark McKown, an associate professor of behavorial science at Rush University in Chicago, who has studied social-emotional learning assessments, said it could be difficult to measure students’ emerging identities.

“Identity is such a highly complex and abstract concept,” said McKown, whose company, xSEL Labs, makes a performance-based social-emotional learning assessment for schools. “It could be helpful to educators. But how to define it, much less assess it, is a little unclear to me.”

Scott Marion, the director of the Center for Assessment, which advises states and districts on testing systems, said that understanding—and nurturing—students’ identities could be a powerful way to enhance their learning. But it remains to be seen, he said, whether the new tools can provide information teachers can use.

“Ultimately, the question about assessment always is, what can I do now?” Marion said. “There has to be a productive way to act on the information you get. Otherwise, what’s the point?”

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation provides general operating support for Education Week, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative supports the newspaper’s coverage of whole-child learning, and the Walton Family Foundation supports coverage of strategies for advancing opportunities for students most in need. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of that coverage.

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