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How to Assess Student Progress During Distance Learning

Michael Nutter

July 1, 2020

After several months of remote learning, educators and district officials should be thinking about how to best assess student progress — both from a distance and when in-classroom learning resumes.

With over 1.2 billion children worldwide out of school this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, educators were forced to quickly transition to distance learning — and it hasn’t been easy. Many distance learning challenges have come to light since the first stay-at-home orders were put in place. Younger children, for instance, tend to be easily distracted by online tools and may miss out on the benefits of a more structured learning environment during this time.

There are also accessibility and equality issues to consider. A student’s ability to participate meaningfully in their online classes is defined by their access to a reliable internet connection, and many students from lower socio-economic statuses suffer as a result of our country’s digital divide. Eric Gordon, the chief executive for the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, has reported that 30 to 40 percent of his district’s students don’t have steady internet access, and absenteeism has spiked in similar districts nationwide.

Still, teachers all over the world rose to the challenge and worked to provide a quality education to their students, even from a distance. Some studies have even shown that students learn 25 to 60 percent more material online and take 40 to 60 percent less time doing so. To make the most out of their hard work, educators shouldn’t let valuable feedback, data, and an understanding of student progress slip by. As teachers adjust to the new realities of remote education, they also need to adjust their assessment practices accordingly.

Traditional Methods of Gauging Student Progress

During a traditional school year, educators typically use a combination of summative and formative assessments to gauge student progress. Summative assessments evaluate student learning and academic achievement at the end of an instructional period, like at the end of a course or the entire school year. Common examples include high-stakes graded assignments, like midterm exams or final projects. Summative assessments are valuable for identifying students who are struggling in certain subject areas or preparing for future tests, but they’re not the best for helping educators understand how well (or not well) distance learning is going.

Instead, educators should focus more on formative assessments to shape student learning during this pandemic. Formative assessments monitor student learning and progress as they’re happening. In contrast to summative assessments, formative assessments are purely diagnostic and only used to provide a barometer for where students and teachers are during the year. Common examples include low-stakes ungraded assignments, like having a student draw a concept map during a lesson to demonstrate their understanding of the topic.

Formative assessments help students identify their strengths and weaknesses in a low-stress way and help educators refine their teaching methods in accordance with student feedback and retention. Although Governor Mike DeWine has announced intentions to have Ohio K-12 schools return to class in Fall 2020, it will be up to each district to determine its calendar. Plans will be reassessed based on health and safety measures dictated by the state, and thus it is prudent for superintendents and educators to continue preparing for the potential for distance learning in the future.

The Value of Formative Assessments

As educators adjusted to distance learning this year, the focus naturally shifted from “how do I facilitate distance learning?” to “how do I understand if this is working?” Formative assessments are the best way to get the feedback needed to answer this vital question, and even though it’s challenging to do at a distance, it’s not impossible. Here are some examples of how formative assessment might work remotely.

  • Peer assessments: Peer assessments let students use one another as learning resources, which has the added benefit of directly engaging students and encouraging participation. These assessments can be used to gauge whether students know enough about a certain topic to communicate and apply it to others. Teachers can provide their students with a rubric tailored to the different kinds of competencies they want measured. Workshopping via video chat also gives students an opportunity to reconnect with classmates and get the social interaction they might be missing at home.
  • In-the-moment Check-ins: Teachers can use in-the-moment chats as a quick way to gauge retention. After they finish explaining a concept, teachers can ask their students to hit a “Yes” or “No” button within the online tool to privately indicate whether or not they understand the material. This is also an excellent way to engage students who are shy or don’t want their classmates to know they’re having trouble with the lesson.
  • “Admit Slips”: At the beginning of each online class, students can come prepared with a comment or question about what they learned yesterday. Teachers can also incentivize this practice by making “Admit Slips” worth a participation point.

As we all adapt to a “new normal” both during and after the pandemic, formative assessments should become an integral part of the education students receive — even when students are allowed to return to the classroom. Aside from helping to understand distance learning progress, formative assessments are excellent tools for reinforcing what students have learned by stressing comprehension and application over rote memorization. Many students are more than happy to demonstrate what they’ve learned outside of a formal testing environment.

From a mental and emotional standpoint, it’s also important for districts to acknowledge that the stress of COVID-19 has made focusing on school difficult for many students. Faced with a period of intense changes, formative assessments can eventually help schools better understand how their students are adjusting back to an in-person learning environment. Summative assessments might keep the structure of a routine school year intact, but may ultimately wind up taking a toll on young minds. Formative assessments relieve some of this pressure and allow students to focus on the intrinsic value of learning instead of formal grades.

Focus on Teaching, Not Tech

Needless to say, between distance learning and formative assessments, educators have more on their plates than ever. And while technology can be a powerful tool under our current circumstances, it can also serve as a hurdle and a distraction. To support educators as best as possible, superintendents and district officials should do everything in their power to make the increased integration of technology stress-free.

Vinson’s QuantumSpeed IT Teacher Help Desk offers rapid support for teachers incorporating technology into their curricula. QuantumSpeed solves IT problems like password resets and software issues in real-time — no tickets, no IT backlogs, and no delays to lesson plans. With QuantumSpeed, districts can equip their teachers with a resource that allows them to focus more on teaching and assessing students in meaningful ways, and less on technical difficulties.

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