Voice from the Industry

Two Major Trends in the Future of Large-Scale Assessment

Media reports are full of stories that the new administration intends to “repeal the Common Core,” expand vouchers and charter schools, and slash education funding. Talk about disruption. What does all that mean for large-scale accountability testing? In my view, not very much.

Large-scale accountability assessments will continue to be necessary in the current administration because they provide information on school performance and provide evidence to support policy-making at the state and federal levels. Large-scale accountability assessment will continue to evolve on many fronts. I see two significant aspects to this evolution.

1.  Continuing Trend Toward Balanced Assessment Systems

The desire for balanced assessments systems is increasing. Statewide accountability assessments, locally adopted interim assessments, classroom assessment support, embedded assessment activities—together, these all provide valuable balance and meaningful information.

  • States like Wyoming and Alaska are adopting large-scale assessments along with interim assessment components aligned with their state standards. Local districts can administer the interim assessments in fall and winter to track student progress toward achieving college and career readiness.
  • Many districts use local funding to administer interim assessments like the MAP assessment (NWEA), iReady (Curriculum Associates), and a new offering from Measured Progress, eMPower Assessments™, to track student progress throughout students’ school careers.
  • Formative assessment is gaining emphasis; teachers access formative assessment services and content to create classroom tests as part of the teaching-learning process.
  • Curriculum materials providers in K–12 and higher education, formerly known as textbook publishers, are embedding high-quality formative and summative assessment activities into their online curriculum content and learning activities.

A balanced assessment system is not about more tests; it’s about multiple sources of information about student learning and learning needs.

2.  Continuing Expansion of the Role of Technology

Ten years ago, the role of technology in large-scale assessment was predominantly behind the scenes. Optical scanners captured student responses to test items, software funneled the responses to automated and human scoring processes, and other software completed psychometric analyses and prepared information for test score reports to families, schools, and state accountability systems.

Today, millions of students take tests online. Their typed responses are scored by AI-based automatic scoring engines, and educators can manage test results online to create customized views of student achievement.

Here are two ways in which technology will expand in large-scale assessment.

Performance assessment: These are assessment activities in which students generate written and graphical responses rather than select a response from multiple-choice options. Performance assessment was in its heyday in large-scale assessment in the 1990s. Now we have the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS®)*, which make science learning proactive and interactive rather than passive ingestion of facts and concepts. Large-scale science performance assessments in the 1990s included table top experiments and their attendant high costs and logistical challenges.

Today, students conduct technology-enabled, simulated science activities—like mixing chemicals to observe reactions—without the challenges of mounting real experiments in testing. This trend toward more performance assessment via online testing means better, more authentic assessment and better, more valid information about student learning.

Unobtrusive assessment: Curriculum providers create online learning environments in which assessment information is captured, while learners explore to learn concepts, experiment, and solve problems. This is called unobtrusive or “stealth” assessment(1)because students do not have to break away from learning to take a test. Instead, their online learning activities are used to assess and enhance learning. This practice enables immediate, personalized feedback to students and their teachers—which research shows has positive effects on improving student learning.

Throughout my assessment career I’ve made a number of predictions. I’ve never been exactly right. But, so far, I’ve never been just plain wrong. Let’s see how I do on these predictions about the future of large-scale assessment.


*NGSS is a registered trademark of Achieve. Neither Achieve nor the lead states and partners that developed the Next Generation Science Standards were involved in the production of this product and do not endorse it.

(1)See, for example, DiCerbo, K., Ferrara, S., & Lai, E. (2017 in press). Principled design and development for embedding assessment for learning in games and simulations. In R. W. Lissitz & H. Jiao (Eds.). Technology enhanced innovative assessment: Development, modeling, and scoring from an interdisciplinary perspective. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.


Steve Ferrara is Senior Advisor for Measurement Solutions at Measured Progress. His career includes teaching and advocating for special education, serving as a state assessment director, conducting award-winning research and innovation in assessment, language assessment, and psychometrics research. He may be reached at media@measuredprogress.org.