Special Report
Classroom Technology

Testing Digital Tools to Improve Formative Assessments

By Benjamin Herold — March 10, 2014 10 min read
Patrick Kilty, a Summit High history teacher, is integrating new digital tools into lessons to develop better ways to generate ongoing feedback about individual student performance.
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The digital learning tools flooding schools come with a tantalizing promise: real-time feedback on what children know, combined with fingertip access to a dizzying array of tailored instructional materials, resulting in more customized instruction from teachers and a more personalized learning experience for each student.

It’s a technology-enhanced version of the feedback loop that educators call formative assessment. But even in the most tech-savvy public schools, the digital overhaul of this vital classroom practice is just beginning, and skeptics worry that many of the new products being touted by ed-tech companies will serve primarily to enable more efficient use of poor formative-assessment techniques.

“I think the potential of technology to improve formative assessment is significant, but I can’t say I’ve really seen it in action yet,” said Margaret Heritage, the assistant director for professional development at the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards & Student Testing, or CRESST, at the University of California, Los Angeles. “It’s not about giving teachers digital tools. It’s about helping them embrace a different way of teaching.”

Since well before the ed-tech revolution began, experts like Ms. Heritage have contended that effective classroom formative assessment is patchy at best. They’ve pointed to a lack of time, training, and resources for busy classroom teachers and an overemphasis on high-stakes standardized testing as barriers to improvement.

Sensing a need, vendors large and small have pounced. Publishers and giant education service companies are rolling out comprehensive digital platforms and curricula in the hopes that districts will embrace all-in-one solutions. Startups and app makers, meanwhile, are offering a growing menu of smaller-scale tools aimed at improving specific components of the classroom-feedback loop.

‘Hybrid’ Teaching

Both approaches are on display here at Summit High School, located in the foothills of the Cascade mountains in an upscale part of this ski town in central Oregon. Some teachers are using a new digital platform known as PEAK12 (short for Personalize, Engage, and Achieve with K12), the latest product from the Herndon, Va.-based K12 Inc., the country’s largest private provider of online educational services to precollegiate schools. Others have embraced an à la carte approach, mixing and matching classroom tools such as Socrative, a free app for quickly scanning dozens of student responses with the swipe of a finger.

The early returns are uneven, but encouraging.

Almost overnight, Summit teachers have begun using the new technologies to track the time students spend on reading assignments, take quick snapshots of how well whole classrooms understand new mathematics concepts, and examine the complexities of teenagers’ relationship to writing.

Summit Principal Alice DeWittie has encouraged the experimentation.

“The core principle is looking at student work, and based on that, changing what comes next in your instruction,” Ms. DeWittie said. “Technology just enhances it and makes it easier.”

Even in a tech-savvy environment such as Summit High School in Bend, Ore., the transition to tech-enabled formative assessment has been challenging.

Summit, a high-performing school with a student body that is 89 percent white, is one of five high schools in Oregon’s 16,000-student Bend-La Pine district.

On a recent frigid morning, juniors carrying iPads and wearing sweatshirts emblazoned with snowboard-company logos filed into Patrick Kilty’s third-period U.S. history class, now being taught in a “hybrid” manner that involves both face-to-face and online learning.

So far, the 43-year-old Mr. Kilty has been the Summit teacher to make the heaviest use of the new ed-tech tools from K12 Inc., which recently rebranded the division of the company providing services to schools and districts under the moniker Fuel Education LLC. PEAK12 is intended as a one-stop shop that integrates digital content, assessments, and data dashboards from the company, third-party vendors, and teachers themselves.

The digital curriculum used by Mr. Kilty, which includes readings and regular quizzes, is hosted on PEAK12. He manages the class through Blackboard, a third-party learning-management system that can sit on the PEAK12 platform. And through PEAK12, Mr. Kilty accesses regular reports on students’ quiz performance and time spent online reviewing class materials.

K12, much like other large education services companies, is betting that districts will turn to such comprehensive systems as a means of bringing online offerings that previously stood alone into brick-and-mortar schools—a push being driven in part by the desire to improve classroom-feedback loops.

On this day, Mr. Kilty’s class is beginning a unit on the reconstruction of the American South following the Civil War. The digital curriculum from K12, which students are expected to read on their own time, consists of a cursory written overview of the era’s major events and ideas, interspersed with maps and graphs. Embedded within the curriculum is a formative assessment in the form of a quiz, which students are expected to take online at their own discretion, that includes 10 multiple-choice items covering basic facts and vocabulary.

Eventually, Mr. Kilty will use the resulting digital data to make a basic instructional adjustment: sorting his students into groups. As part of the new hybrid model, most students are required to attend the face-to-face portion of his class just three days a week. But those who are “red-flagged” in the PEAK12 reports for not spending enough time reading online or for poor quiz performance are required to attend every day.

Ms. Heritage of CRESST questioned the educational value of that approach as it was described to her. Too often, she and other experts maintain, formative assessment is seen as little more than pop quizzes and “mini-summative assessments,” neither of which provide high-quality data on what students are thinking, learning, and doing. The quiz items from the Reconstruction unit of the K12 curriculum, Ms. Heritage said, “don’t tap into deeper learning and don’t tell what a child has or hasn’t learned or is on the cusp of achieving.”

Summit High Principal Alice DeWittie and science teacher Jason Colquhoun conduct walk-throughs of classrooms to evaluate how teachers and students are using technology, and then they discuss their observations outside the classrooms.

“This seems to be an example of using digital technology for its own sake and actually taking away from the richness of the classroom,” she concluded.

Depth vs. Breadth

Mr. Kilty doesn’t entirely disagree, saying the digital curricula from K12 is only “an inch deep” and acknowledging that the formative-assessment data he receives in the form of usage statistics and quiz grades provide only broad strokes of information about his students.

But for real teachers faced with real classroom constraints, Mr. Kilty said, that information is quite useful, especially because of the fast and user-friendly way in which the PEAK12 system makes it available. Now, he said, he can determine before class even starts if struggling students have fallen behind because of a lack of effort or a lack of comprehension. That allows him to tailor his interventions for those students without losing precious face-to-face time with the rest of the class.

As a result, Mr. Kilty said, he can focus those sessions on what he believes really matters: the skills required of historians, such as analyzing primary-source documents, and the skills embodied in the new Common Core State Standards, such as constructing and writing persuasive arguments.

During the recent third-period lesson, Mr. Kilty quickly reminded students about the online readings and quizzes that were due later that week, offering encouragement to individual teenagers based on what the PEAK12 system has told him of their progress.

Students in Mr. Kilty’s U.S. History class, which combines online and face-to-face learning, use tablets to do work.

Then he quickly thrust the class into their task for the day.

“You’re going to play the role of a lawyer,” Mr. Kilty told his students. “First, you need to find constitutional evidence for why the legislative branch should be the one to control Reconstruction.”

As the students dove into the text of the document on their iPads, Mr. Kilty circulated around the room, engaging in animated conversations with students about their research—an old-school form of formative assessment.

The use of digital tools to gauge student understanding is a novel concept for a veteran teacher, said Mr. Kilty, and the K12 platform has allowed him to begin cautiously. Now that he has the basics under his belt, he said, the next challenge is to use the new tools to revamp how he assesses students’ critical-thinking skills.

Mixing and Matching Apps

Other Summit High teachers have taken a more modular approach, using a variety of new ed-tech tools to elicit evidence of student learning as their lessons take place, diagnose students’ misconceptions, and make informed decisions about where in the classroom to focus their attention—all skills that experts describe as central to effective formative assessment.

During a recent lesson in Brandon Thompson’s geometry class, for example, students used four separate classroom apps to learn about finding the area of triangles that contain no 90-degree angles. Despite the variety of tools being used in the classroom, the lesson went off without a hitch, with both teacher and students switching seamlessly among tools even though they had only been introduced a few months earlier.

First, Mr. Thompson had the class download problems from iTunesU, a course-management tool from Apple Inc., and begin solving them in Notability, a digital note-taking app.

Shortly after the students began, Mr. Thompson asked them to use the Socrative app to submit their solutions directly from their iPads to his. As he walked around the room, Mr. Thompson scrolled through a single screen that contained each student’s name and response. One student appeared way off base; the teacher stopped by to work with him directly. Overall, the snapshot revealed that most students got the overall gist, although many made rounding mistakes and failed to properly notate the unit of analysis.

Based on the information from Socrative and conversations with students as he circulated the room, Mr. Thompson then identified two—one of whose work illustrated the common misunderstandings and another whose work demonstrated a creative problem-solving approach—and asked them to “beam in.” Using an app called Airplay, the students projected the screens of their iPads onto a wall at the front of the room.

“Camille, would you talk us through what’s going on here?” Mr. Thompson asked. A quick classwide discussion served to both illuminate the process by which the student solved the problem and highlight the procedural error made by much of the class. Murmurs of understanding rippled through the room. Mr. Thompson concluded that the class was ready to move on, so he repeated the process, but with a more difficult challenge: This time, students were asked to develop an original formula that would allow them to solve for the area of any non-right triangle.

“That’s a good use of technology for formative assessment,” Ms. Heritage of CRESST said when the lesson was described to her.

Finding the Right Fit

Ultimately, Ms. Heritage and other experts believe, the real potential of technology is less about making formative assessment easier and more about making it better. That could mean better ways of curating multiple sources of evidence about a child’s learning, improved use of multimedia tools to capture student work and thinking, and new tools that encourage and help students measure their own learning—a critical component of formative assessment that experts say is frequently overlooked.

See Also

Chat March 18, at 2 p.m. ET: Digital Advances Reshaping Formative Assessment

Assessment expert Margaret Heritage and high school principal Alice DeWittie discuss the promises and realities of technology-enabled formative assessment.
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Officials from K12 Inc. believe that PEAK12 can be the foundation upon which such solutions are brought into classrooms; the key, they say, is a smart digital platform that is comprehensive enough to be the single point of entry to digital learning for an entire school or district, but flexible enough to allow teachers to bring in both third-party tools and their own content.

The market for educational apps and software, meanwhile, continues to grow and diversify.

Principal DeWittie said that context matters when deciding which approach to embrace. Her previous school, she said, was characterized by a high level of instability and tremendous variation in students’ academic abilities and teachers’ readiness to embrace new technology. There, a “whole school” approach might be the best fit, she maintained.

But at Summit—high-performing, stable, and relatively homogenous, with a cadre of talented and ambitious teachers—it’s been about investing in people first, and tools second.

The result is a rapidly evolving—and somewhat messy—school culture when it comes to technology and formative assessment.

Mr. Thompson and another math teacher are already busy training other Summit staff members how to combine the apps that have been so effective in their classrooms.

And next school year, a total of five Summit courses will be taught in a hybrid manner with K12 tools, à la Mr. Kilty’s class.

But the history teacher has already begun experimenting with other tools, such as Google Forms, a cloud-based tool through which he created his own assessments of students’ ability to identify point of view and bias in primary-source documents.

“It’s a new frontier for me,” Mr. Kilty said. “I’m still learning.”


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