Synergizing Assessment with Learning Science to Support Accelerated Learning Recovery: Understanding by Design

In this third and culminating blog on the topic of synergizing assessment with learning science, I advocate that we unify our educational ecosystem through a common theory of learning to ensure we accelerate, recover, and personalize learning opportunities for each student. To accomplish this vision of what public education can and should look like, we can consider working at the intersections of design-based research, principled assessment design, and Understanding by Design as shown in Figure 1, with teams of experts in accessibility, assessment, curriculum, diversity, instruction, and learning science. As interim assessment providers predicted, we are likely to see additional evidence that proficiency in mathematics was more strongly influenced by the pandemic than reading. We need a plan for the years ahead.

Figure 1: Synergizing Instruction and Assessment with Learning Science

In the first blog of this series, I argued that our development and use of assessments across the educational ecosystem needs to synergize practices with the learning sciences. We need to create assessments that help teachers understand the stage of cognition within the content area in which the student is presently functioning. The synergy between assessments and the learning sciences begins with the premise that large-scale summative assessments can be designed to support teaching and learning.

In my second blog of this series, I described the general design framework that makes use of evidence, both in the design of the assessments and in the analysis of the item level results against the design (i.e., the score interpretations), to support the claim that the learning theory being described is reasonably true.  This evidence-centered design branch is called principled assessment design using Range ALDs

When we have validity and efficacy evidence that the state summative assessments are designed to and do support teachers by providing reasonably accurate score interpretations, we are ready to begin the next stage of the process, which is the focus of this blog.

We need to support school districts in embedding the learning theory and corresponding evidence statements into their curriculums through Understanding by Design. This third step is critically important. Why? Because assessments alone do not change an educational system.

The Planning Stages of Understanding by Design

Understanding by Design (UBD) is a principled approach to curriculum planning. Curriculum is ideally designed to ask students to produce increasingly sophisticated outputs upon which learning opportunities are based. Both curriculum and assessments are based on the desired outcomes of what students should know and be able to do. We want to use the same evidence statements and theories of learning for curriculum and assessment development if we want to create a coherent educational ecosystem that focuses on equity and growing students to proficiency and beyond. UBD is at its core a three-stage planning framework to help curriculum designers think through curriculum and assessment design. These stages are shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2: The Stages of Backward Design used in UBD

When a state makes a commitment to develop its statewide assessments using the processes described in principled assessment design based on Range ALDs,  Stages 1 and 2 of the UBD framework are essentially complete. The state has shared the desired outcomes for students and validated that the evidence collection framework is a reasonably true representation of how students are likely to increase in sophistication along the proficiency continuum. Thus, districts and teachers have access to the same validated evidence framework as test designers to support them in identifying where students are in their learning throughout the year. This is a critical step in creating an equitable educational system. Such an endeavor also allows district stakeholders and teachers to spend their precious time

  • planning for effective and engaging learning activities,
  • evaluating instructional materials against evidence statements in the Range ALDs to investigate students’ opportunities to learn at levels of cognition that represent proficient and advanced stages, and most critically,
  • creating connected instructional and assessment tasks based on the state’s theory of learning.

That is, district curriculum specialists and teachers can focus their time on Stage 3 of the UBD framework.

Stage 3: Planning Learning Experiences and Instruction

A growing chorus of measurement and learning progression experts argue that high-quality assessment tasks are interchangeable with high-quality instructional tasks: they are two sides of the same coin. Both can be used to support learning and transfer. Instructional tasks give students an opportunity to learn, and assessment tasks show students can transfer what was learned to a new scenario independently.

When a student succeeds on a task independently, teachers should be encouraged to provide the student with a more sophisticated task within the progression of learning within in the unit that is the teacher’s focus. We cannot give each student in a classroom the exact same performance task if we want to accelerate student learning. Students come to us in different stages of learning and with differing needs in terms of the depth and length of opportunities they need to master a particular stage of cognition within the content area. Therefore, we want teachers to provide tasks to each student that are aligned to a stage of the learning target progression that the individual student needs to grow. The focus for the teacher is to facilitate learning by providing feedback to help the student close the gap between her present level of performance and the next stage of sophistication. It is for this reason we want to encourage each student to revise his work. The focus for districts, and perhaps the state, is to provide the authentic tasks aligned to the progressions.

Under such an adaptive classroom model, instructional and assessment tasks can have formative or summative uses, depending on the student and teacher actions and what the child is able to do independently verses with support.  Because learning targets have explicit progressions, connections across tasks based on evidence statements in those progressions will intentionally support student growth in achievement by offering multiple opportunities to learn across time and across progressions. When a student successfully responds to a task associated with a particular stage of the progression, the student is ready to move to the task associated with the next stage. Moreover, students with 504s and IEPs are naturally included in the process because the support they need to show what they know is built in, for example, by allowing them access to text-to-speech or additional scaffolding which is considered context in the Range ALD development framework.

It is the intentional planning and creation of additional difficulty across tasks by purposefully increasing content difficulty, cognitive complexity, integrating additional standards, and perhaps moving from single to multiple stimuli that is the hallmark of proficiency in many states. Wiggins and McTighe discuss the need to organize and sequence student learning experiences for maximum engagement and efficacy (p. 220) in the UBD process. Validating the Range ALDs using learning science processes of iteration allows them to meet their intended interpretation claim: Range ALDs describe the ranges of content- and thinking-skill difficulty that are theories of how students grow in their development as they integrate standards to solve increasingly more sophisticated problems or tasks in the content area. They are essentially cognition-based learning progressions.

Its About Supporting Learning in the Classroom

Creating a state-level educational ecosystem based in cognition-based learning progressions helps teachers better understand where students are in their learning and suggests likely pathways in which students need to be guided to help them develop the ability to engage in far transfer. If we take the time to ensure we have evidence to support score interpretations on the large-scale assessment, such claims become useful to teachers in the classroom because Range ALDs provide an informative tool to support curriculum and learning activities. Teachers can

  • align tasks they administer to students to the cognition-based progression stages and
  • match authentic student responses to the cognition-based progression stages.

It is the score interpretations that are critical for defensibility, not just scale scores. Creating such a system allows us to provide professional development for teachers in using evidence to understand learning. This process requires training teachers on how to align assessment tasks to Range ALDs, and that assessment tasks can be different but interchangeable if the evidence elicited by different tasks are the same. This allows tasks to be personalized to student interests, culture, accessibility needs, and ability to support increased student engagement.

We must challenge ourselves to create more efficient, equitable educational ecosystems that allow teachers to focus on analyzing where the student is and what the student needs next following a common and validated theory of learning such as is shown in Figure 3. We can and should allow large-scale summative assessments to contribute to teaching and learning rather than use them simply to evaluate teachers, schools, and districts without providing substantive information to help inform next steps.

Figure 3. Theory of Action centered in a Common Theory of Learning

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