Special Report
Assessment

Market Is Booming for Digital Formative Assessments

By Michele Molnar — May 24, 2017 5 min read
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As more students have access to computers in K-12 classrooms each year, teachers are turning more often to those devices for the age-old practice of conducting formative assessment.

A 2016 Education Week Research Center survey found that 83 percent of district or school leaders said their teachers were using one or more digital tools for conducting formative assessments during the 2015-16 school year. Of that group, 32 percent reported general success with the tools, and 45 percent said they had mixed results.

That could be because formative assessment—in which teachers use small checks of students’ understanding of material, then adjust their pedagogy accordingly and evaluate again—does not require digital tools in the first place.

But the appeal of using technology to monitor and track students’ progress—and give them an opportunity to answer newer item types like those they see on the computer-based, summative tests aligned to the Common Core State Standards—is gaining traction. And more digital tools in the hands of teachers for formative assessment translate into more investment on the part of schools.

In fact, classroom assessments, including formative and other kinds that are not state-mandated, represent nearly a $1.6 billion market this year, compared with the almost $1.3 billion that will be spent for state-mandated tests. Expected to grow by 30 percent through 2020, the classroom-based sector is the fastest-growing of the two. That number includes the cost of the professional development provided during the implementation stage, according to an analysis by Emerging Strategy, a market-intelligence firm.

The biggest change driving these numbers is the fact that digital purchases in the classroom-assessment market are often displacing print, said Robert Lytle, a managing director and a co-leader of the education practice at Parthenon-EY, Ernst & Young LLP, a business that provides consulting services to K-12 schools and the companies that sell to them. “A lot of classroom assessments are easier to do if they’re taken in digital format,” he said. Beyond that, educators can have the “data crunching” done for them by the technology.

“This is the heart of teaching and learning,” observed Lytle, so districts tend to be “pretty sophisticated buyers” of assessment software and “very sophisticated” in their understanding of how to drive implementation to make sure it actually works.

Big State Investments

In North Carolina, for instance, 477,000 elementary children now have access to a formative-diagnostic-assessment system from Amplify to support the state’s commitment to ensure that all students will read by the 3rd grade. It’s a software program that has been increasing its reach since 2010, as the state has rolled it out.

“The great thing about it is that you can look at those K-3 scores and see that they align well with how the students do on the [state] end-of-grade exams at the end of 3rd grade,” said Carolyn Guthrie, North Carolina’s director of K-3 literacy.

The state chose Amplify so it can administer DIBELS, or Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills, a rudimentary assessment for early reading intervention, and TRC, or Text Reading and Comprehension, which measures how the students apply foundational skills as they are reading authentic text. During this time, the teacher listens, using an iPad to record what the child is doing. That data generates immediate reports for teachers.

In the Orange County, Fla., public schools, an assessment platform built by Performance Matters gives teachers—alone or in professional learning groups—the option of creating formative-assessment items and tracking student outcomes. If they don’t want to write their own questions, they can draw from an item bank purchased from Progress Testing or other vendors.

“We like using the banks as exemplars,” said Brandon McKelvey, the associate superintendent of research, accountability, and grants. Once they are trained in how to use the platform, teachers might save 20 percent to 25 percent of their lesson-planning time each week, he estimated.

Boston’s Adoption

The Boston district recently selected two companies to provide a formative-assessment platform and an item bank, after 12 responded to a request for proposals. The district chose Measured Progress for its item bank to generate interim assessments and, as needed, formative assessments, and Illuminate Education for the platform, which is an online tool where formative assessments can be built and administered and data can be captured and analyzed from multiple sources.

After a series of district- and school-based professional development sessions, the formative-assessment program is getting strong adoption with the teachers, said Michael Rubino, the formative-assessment manager in Boston.

“Assessment is a small piece of what the platform can do,” he said, “In between benchmarks, teachers and school leaders are using the platform to monitor progress data, including reading levels and unit-level assessments.” Both quantitative and qualitative formative assessments can be tracked on the platform, including daily exit tickets, informal conversations teachers have with students, and qualitative notes. By using built-in web-scanning software, the system can also pull data from paper-and-pencil tests and capture students’ written work.

The idea of formative assessment has been around for more than 40 years, said Kathy Dyer, a senior professional-development specialist for the Northwest Evaluation Association. “But it does feel like the acceptance and understanding of it, fueled by digital tools, is on the uptake.”

About a year ago, Dyer blogged about 55 digital tools and apps teachers use in the classroom and recently updated the list to indicate that some of them are no longer around—but the list is growing.

One of the things that makes the tools and apps “so valuable and attractive is that they have visually vibrant displays, and they’re giving instant feedback.” Besides that, she said, “a lot of them are fun,” and it’s not just teachers getting information about evidence of learning; the learners are as well.

A version of this article appeared in the May 24, 2017 edition of Education Week as Formative Assessments Go Digital

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