American politician and educational reformer Horace Mann once said, “Education then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equalizer of the conditions of men, the balance-wheel of the social machinery.” Education can open opportunities for all students. It can help fulfill the American promise that personal initiative can open new worlds. The reality is that today’s schools are hardly uniform, and while that can be an advantage in offering choice, many schools operate within constraints that put their students at a disadvantage. To deliver on the promise of education as an equalizing force, America’s teachers and administrators need to know where their students are starting their school journeys—to meet each student wherever he or she is—and have the tools to measure growth along the way. Assessment results can help focus these efforts.
To understand the disparities among students—to measure the gap—the assessment must be able to measure students who are performing on, above, or below grade level. There is a place for understanding grade level proficiency (in fact, federal accountability frameworks demand it), but to actually teach each student as he or she is the teacher needs to know where the starting line is.
Adaptive tests, which adjust with each test question and can include out of grade level material, provide the clearest picture of that starting line. Many tests adapt only after several items have been presented, which does not return the same precision as a test that adjusts in real time in reaction to every single student response. In addition to this true adaptivity, the test also needs a deep pool of items to draw from in order to ensure that students are seeing new questions. And of course, an adaptive assessment must use a stable scale, which is the only way to accurately show a student’s growth over time, regardless of grade level performance.
Efficient assessment is also crucial to meeting students where they are because it returns actionable assessment data without sacrificing instructional time. Efficiency also refers to obtaining quality and precise data from the assessment instance. Adaptive tests—like our Measures of Academic Progress® (MAP®) interim assessments—can pinpoint student growth and instructional needs accurately in a relatively short amount of time. MAP assessments take about an hour, and give students and educators information they can immediately use to move learning forward.
- Students immediately see how they scored on the test.
- Teachers see how the class is performing and can use this information to set goals with students, create flexible groups to differentiate instruction, and communicate with parents.
- Principals get a view of their entire school and can direct resources to meet specific needs.
- District administrators can see how each school is performing and make adjustments based on reliable information.
No single assessment can do it all—nor should it. Using multiple measures allows educators to cross-check their data and answer different educational questions with the appropriate tools. But when it comes to driving individual learning, especially for underserved populations, formative and interim assessments have a critical role to play in providing the information educators need to close achievement gaps. To understand where all students are on their learning path, an adaptive assessment can be an invaluable tool, provided it meets certain criteria: measuring growth regardless of grade and gathering data efficiently.