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Pearson Research & Innovation Network: More Than a Test Score

Last weekend the Obama administration revealed its Testing Action Plan – a set of guidelines for limiting classroom testing time by way of fewer and smarter assessments. For anyone interested in classroom instruction or educational policy, the plan is worth a careful read. It outlines principles that are axiomatic among educational researchers, but that unfortunately haven’t yet taken hold in modern testing systems.

A couple key points deserve emphasis.

First, assessment results should be timely and actionable. They should pinpoint students’ strengths and weaknesses and suggest targeted supports and interventions that can help keep students on a path toward college and career readiness. It’s important to note that “timely” doesn’t just mean rapid score reporting; struggling students may need years to correct course and catch up, so “timely” college- and career-readiness information comes long before the end of high school.

Second, assessment systems should incorporate multiple measures to fully capture students’ progress toward meaningful future goals. At present, we gauge college and career readiness by homing in on a narrow domain – academic achievement. Our fixation on reading and mathematics has yielded pretty good tests of reading and mathematics, and relatively scant attention to everything else. Years of social psychological research has demonstrated non-academic traits like perseverance, behavior, and ownership of learning are critical to later-life success, but these personal qualities have been crowded out by an inordinate focus on core academic subjects.

In short, the Testing Action Plan calls for balanced assessment. Assessment systems that are balanced provide fair and useful information via multiple indicators of teaching and learning. Balanced assessment implies that both academic competencies (e.g., literacy and numeracy) and personal qualities (e.g., motivation and behavior) are combined to provide accurate and actionable predictions of future success. Balanced assessment supports diagnosis and intervention, not punishment.


We can change the way we measure student progress. Explore innovations from Pearson.

For the past three years, Pearson’s Research & Innovation Network has been developing middle-school indicators of college readiness to support the goals of balanced assessment. Three features distinguish these indicators from the modern assessment systems the Obama administration is aiming to reform: they are diverse, they are early, and they are actionable. We examine not only achievement, but also motivation, behavior, social engagement, family circumstances and school characteristics. And our research suggests these indicators can – in middle school – provide more accurate projections of postsecondary success than conventional readiness measures like SAT and ACT. Reliable predictions, of course, require diverse inputs – inclusive of, but not limited to, academic accomplishments. In fact, we found that together, motivation and behavior are substantially more important to postsecondary readiness than achievement is alone.

Few of these findings are epiphanies to educators. Classroom teachers understand the importance of helping students set ambitious goals and take ownership of their academic progress. Unfortunately, current assessment and accountability systems aren’t designed to measure and reward the development of these “non-cognitive” competencies.

But that may be about to change. Bipartisan support for reform is presenting a rare opportunity to rescue assessment from its own excesses. Good tests support instruction. Good tests diagnose the whole child. In fact, good tests aren’t “tests” at all, at least not in the conventional sense. Yes, academic achievement matters. Yes, mastery of core content matters. But readiness is more than a test score.

Our CEO, John Fallon, has written more about assessment systems here and here. And, explore more about my research and other assessment innovations in the Future of Assessments.

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Matthew Gaertner

Matt Gaertner is a Principal Research Scientist with SRI International specializing in psychometrics and applied statistics. His work focuses on the effects of ed...