Knowing How We Learn Leads to Better Assessment

With a well-designed assessment, teachers can often see patterns in the wrong answers students give. The problem is they are sometimes left guessing about how and why their students responded in those ways.

That is now changing, however, because of the work researchers at Educational Testing Service (ETS) and others are doing to design assessments aligned with learning progressions. The learning progressions help articulate the stages or steps that theory suggests most students go through as they progress toward mastering an important competency, like a key concept, process, strategy, practice or habit of mind.

Using these learning progressions to inform development, ETS assessment specialists and researchers are creating assessments that help teachers and students not only identify that a student is good at or struggling in a particular area, but also shed light on whether the student has an underlying misconception or provide information about what he or she does know so that the teacher can help the student build on his or her current understanding. Armed with that information, the teacher can then tailor instruction for individual students, small groups or the larger group, organize lessons based on how meaningful next learning advances, and create targets for learning and assessment. This all makes the in-classroom experience not only more effective, but more efficient too.

“Let’s say students do not do well on a linear functions assessment,” says Shona Ruiz Diaz, an Assessment Specialist at ETS. “What the learning progression allows us to do is assess what they do know, even if they cannot yet compare linear functions in terms of slope and intercept, can they graph a function from a table or can they write the equation that corresponds to a graph? Or, can they plot points from a table? Or, complete a table that represents a linear function? So that way, we know exactly where the student is in their learning as opposed to just getting this sort of end result: my student knows nothing.”

“Design aligned with learning progressions helps enable assessments to provide information to teachers and students that is more useful to understanding the significance of the scores in the classroom,” ETS Strategic Program Advisor Greg Vafis said, “guiding teachers and students in shaping their instruction and learning.”

“Designing assessments using learning progressions had been happening in research as part of the Cognitively Based Assessment of, for, and as Learning initiative. That work is now being scaled up with assessment specialists who are using learning progressions to create a particular form of interim assessments, which we are calling testlets. These assessments are intended for teachers to use primarily as end-of-unit common assessments, but we see value for teachers to use them also at the start of the unit to inform planning and/or in the middle of their instruction to confirm or adjust their strategies. For testlets, assessment specialists use learning progressions to break down the building blocks of a student’s learning journey from the introduction stage to mastery.

“And so the learning progression research helps us say, ‘What do they (students) need to be able to do first?’ And we have testlets that target some set range of that learning progression,” Vafis says. “So we’ll focus on that and say, ‘Alright, can a student do this thing and do the next constituent piece? Where are the gaps in the student’s ladder of understanding, skills and mastery? What are the missing rungs?’ And then the student and the teacher know what they need to do to fill in the blanks where the student is in the process and what they have to master in order to move forward.”

While the testlets aren’t strictly diagnostic tools, they can offer guidance for teachers, students and parents, Vafis says. The learning progressions on which they are based are also used by teachers to help them understand and recognize the most common development stages through which most students will move. They are not “universal truths” for all students, but useful heuristics that capture typical development trajectories. Furthermore, by using learning progressions in the testlet design, teachers can attach greater meaning to the scores, analyze potential gaps in understanding, and steer a clearer path toward the appropriate interventions and connections needed to move each student forward.

By using the way students actually learn to inform test questions and design, assessments can do more than simply churn out a score. Assessments that are aligned with learning progressions will thus be valuable sources of information that help teachers better customize classroom content to meet the individual needs of their students.