3 Assessment Challenges in a Remote Learning Environment

This is part of a series of blog posts based on HMH’s recent report titled The Connected Learning Era: Mitigating the COVID-19 Learning Loss.

About six months ago, I (like many others) viewed my life as a challenge. Balancing career, family, and quality of life seemed to fully occupy my attention (and then some). Since then, we have seen even greater challenges added to our lives at levels we had never imagined. We are still learning to cope with this new reality, and the future holds a lot of uncertainty.

In this time of great challenge for education, the delivery of assessment has changed for many, but its underlying role in teaching and learning has not changed. Assessment is still needed to provide data that informs instructional practice, even as the current context introduces threats to test reliability and validity. Given the wide variety of remote learning settings, educators are as concerned as ever about where their students are academically. Are they keeping up? Are they falling behind? And if so, how far behind?

The Need for Assessment Has Not Changed

Assessment data is still needed to drive instructional decision-making and accelerate learning. The value of data is as important as ever considering we don't know how effective remote instruction is at its most recent scale.

Although the challenges of assessment have increased with the transition to remote learning, an informative and feasible assessment system should still be:

  • Comprehensive, providing different measures for different purposes and multiple ways for students to demonstrate their knowledge, skills, and abilities;
  • Coherent, connected to instruction with clear goals;
  • Continuous, providing frequently updated information that enables timely feedback and differentiation and;
  • Valid and Reliable for its intended purpose, reliable enough to ensure consistent results, and developmentally appropriate for students to demonstrate their knowledge, skills, and abilities.

Revisiting How We View Assessment

As Stanislas Dehaene points out in his recent book How We Learn (2020), assessment is the most important component of how we learn. To fully appreciate its importance, we must move beyond our traditional view of assessment as an occasional obligation each spring or at the end of a unit of instruction or semester—especially in a time of remote learning and teaching.

We are assessing and learning from feedback we receive every day of our lives both in and out of the classroom. When I approach the counter at my favorite Mexican restaurant and decide on the burrito with extra spicy salsa, my prior knowledge that I enjoy spicy food, my assessment of the current offerings, and the subsequent feedback provided by my burrito offer me a valuable lesson on what I should and should not order in the future. My lunch in the context of assessment may seem silly, but the point is assessment and learning from feedback takes many forms and is important in different contexts.

"We are assessing and learning from feedback we receive every day of our lives both in and out of the classroom."

Assessment even within educational contexts occurs more than we realize, from the very informal practice of self-study with note cards—where we continually check and verify our understanding of a given topic—to the more formalized, teacher-led classroom discussions, to the more familiar standardized summative assessments, and everything in between. A comprehensive portfolio of assessments provides multiple opportunities for students to demonstrate their understanding and learn from their mistakes, and it gives educators valuable insights into their students' progression to mastery.

Assessment Challenges We Must Face

With our continuing need for information, the pandemic poses challenges when it comes to how we acquire data through assessment and shines a spotlight on the inequalities that exist in our educational system. Before we can begin offering solutions, it is important to understand some of those challenges.

1. Variations in Educational Contexts

Under normal circumstances, you can walk into any school or classroom and see how the environment can vary. With remote learning and assessment, this variation has been increased exponentially. As instruction adapts to these new remote learning contexts, assessment must also adapt. Families and their role in the educational dynamic are sometimes overlooked, but now they are front and center. As students engage in remote learning, their families are being called upon to provide adequate support and supervision for their children.

As teachers require support and training for their profession, families of students also need guidance and resources to provide conditions conducive to learning. For more formalized testing that was typically proctored by teachers, caregivers are now being called upon to ensure that proper testing conditions are being met.

Providing a consistent experience for students in remote settings is important for maintaining the reliability and validity of the assessment. When an assessment is valid and reliable, it allows educators to view these results with a greater level of confidence. This will allow students to receive the supports they need to thrive in their coursework.

2. Fairness for Students with Disabilities

Students with learning or intellectual disabilities or speech-language, hearing, or visual impairments have always been one of our most vulnerable testing populations, and the specter of remote assessment will only add to existing challenges. Teachers can take advantage of online assessment features such as screen readers and text magnification to support students with visual or hearing impairments. Accommodations such as extended testing time and taking breaks can still be provided remotely, and individualized support from an aide can come through remote conferencing.

"With many caregivers also balancing busy work schedules, flexibility must be a key part of any assessment approach."

3. Inequities in Remote Assessment

Many of the divides and inequities cited in our current experience with remote learning are born out in assessment as well. Access to reliable internet or technology is not a given for many. Common Sense Media and the Boston Consulting Group estimate that up to 30% of children who had to learn remotely from home lacked adequate connectivity or access to necessary technology for effective distance learning. Providing the technological supports students need to keep on track or devising alternatives that will continue to keep them engaged will be important to ensure our students do not fall further behind. If educators are going to rely more and more on technology to assist in the delivery of assessment, students who lack this access will need to be supported with either the technology necessary or alternatives that do not disadvantage them from their peers.

In addition, some of our most vulnerable who require special assistance from trained educational professionals are missing this vital support. These students are dropping off the radar in their greatest time of need, so it’s incumbent upon us to continue adapting to meet those needs.

There’s much that can be gained from a comprehensive and connected assessment system, and how we view assessment goes a long way toward realizing its significance in teaching and learning. The challenges that come with the transition to a full or partial remote learning and assessment environment while providing an equitable system for all students are not insurmountable. The task at hand just requires an understanding of the challenges and the priorities needed to raise all students up to a level necessary to achieve and exceed their ambitions.

Check Shaped next month for insights on how to address each of these assessment challenges in a remote learning environment.

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To help you continue teaching and learning during the current outbreak of coronavirus, visit HMH's At-Home Learning Support page for free resources.