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Building the Next Generation of Assessments in Education

Thanks to recent advances in technology and in the data sciences, a new era of assessment is on the way in education.

In October 2015, in a Testing Action Plan, President Obama called for a new approach to testing and assessment to better serve students.  The plan outlines a set of principles to reduce the time spent on standardized tests, and improve the quality and usefulness of tests for students and educators, including building new and more innovative technological-based assessment tools.  More recently, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) released its proposed regulations on assessments under Title I of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which the President signed in December 2015, to clarify how states can utilize a number of innovative approaches to assessment, including better integration of technology.  ED also published draft regulations for public comment on the Innovative Assessment Demonstration Authority under Title I part B of the ESSA, which will allow states to pilot new approaches in a subset of districts as an alternative to statewide tests as they work to scale innovative tests statewide.  Read more here.          

These steps by Congress and the Administration are creating conditions whereby educational technology can help transform how tests are delivered while reducing the amount of classroom time spent on assessment.  With the emergence of next-generation web- and app-based assessments, students are now engaging in activities and games that measure knowledge and performance in real time and provide immediate results. These new forms of technology regularly track progress toward mastery of grade level content, adapt and support learning to meet individual needs, and generate teacher reports to inform instruction.  The best learning games allow students to play through hard, complex challenges and demonstrate mastery by succeeding at the game itself, making assessment engaging and rewarding. 

The Small Business Innovation Research program at ED’s Institute of Education Sciences provides funding to entrepreneurs to create commercially viable technology products and learning games, including assessments.  The program emphasizes a rapid research and development (R&D) process, with rigorous research informing iterative development and pilot studies at project end to evaluate the promise of products for improving student outcomes.  Recent advances under the President’s ConnectED initiative are helping bring high-speed internet access and devices to schools across the country to take advantage of these emerging tools, and making it all the more important robust research is conducted on the effective use and impact of educational technology.

In the past three years, ED/IES SBIR has provided awards for many projects that are building innovative assessment approaches. While many of these tools are not presently configured to measure the full depth and breadth of state content standards, the projects do highlight some of the promise of next-gen assessments to expand assessment methods in schools and districts. These projects include summative assessments to test mastery as student’s progress through more difficult levels of content, diagnostic assessments to understand if and why students struggle with learning, and formative assessments to provide immediate feedback to students to inform the learning process.  The projects cover a range of topics aligned to relevant standards in math, science, and reading, and employ digital games, puzzles, simulations, and virtual environments to present content. All of the projects also are developing a feedback loop to teachers in order to aggregate data at the class and student level to inform instruction.

Here is a brief description of eight of the assessment projects currently in development at ED/IES SBIR:


  • The Wuzzit Trouble (watch video) app features puzzles that align to many Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) and Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) topics such as number sense, algebraic thinking, problem solving, and modeling and data analysis. Prior research found that students who played the puzzles showed increased knowledge of number sense and problem solving compared to a comparison group. With the ED/IES SBIR award, the researchers are adding an adaptive engine that adjusts the difficulty of content during gameplay and tracks student progress toward mastery.
  • The StepWise (watch video) Artificial Intelligence virtual tutor for Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for Algebra I will guide students through each step of a solution, immediately assess whether a step is correct, identify exact errors made, offer hints for what to do next, and provide results to teachers. The StepWise is being designed for use in conjunction with daily classroom instruction, and as a replacement for current end-of-unit assessments.
  • Through the Teachley Connect (watch video) dashboard, elementary school students will play Teachley’s and other third party math learning game apps, and teachers will receive formative assessment performance reports to guide individualized instruction.


  • Inq-Blotter (watch video) is a dashboard to provide science teachers real-time formative and summative performance reports as middle and high school student do inquiry-based labs aligned to Next General Science Standards (NGSS) in in physical, life, and earth sciences.

21st Century Learning

  • Eco (watch video) is a multi-player game environment where students collectively build a virtual ecosystem. The game will provide feedback to students on how individual actions affect the ecosystem, and will assess 21st century skills, such as collaboration, leadership, and self-driven learning, and ecological learning aligned to NGSS.


  • The A2i (watch video) Assessment-to-Instruction assesses elementary students’ literacy in areas aligned to CCSS and normed to National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) standards, such as vocabulary, decoding, and comprehension. The A2i adapts based on student responses in real time, and can be used for ongoing progress monitoring or end-of-year assessments. A recent study found that through seven randomized controlled trials demonstrate that students who used the A2i showed significantly increased decoding and reading comprehension compared to students in a control group.
  • iASK is a diagnostic assessment that identifies why struggling middle school readers cannot quickly recognize words—a critical foundation for reading comprehension. iASK identifies gaps in each student’s profile and through ongoing, formative assessments provides feedback for targeted intervention.

Special Education Social and Emotional Learning

  • IvySCIP (watch video) is a platform for practitioners to assess the social and emotional learning needs of elementary students diagnosed with High-Functioning Autism Spectrum Disorder. The platform facilitates data collection and generates reports for developing Individualized Educational Programs (IEPs) and tracking student progress toward meeting goals.

Visit the IES/ED website or follow on Twitter and Facebook  for updates as these assessment projects are completed. Also, look for a follow-up blog in the near future that will detail more technology facilitated assessments funded out of the Research Grants Programs at IES.


Edward Metz is the Program Manager of the Small Business Innovation Research program at the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences.

Aadil Ginwala is Assistant Director, Education and Telecommunications Innovation at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Erik Martin is a Policy Advisor at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.