Monday, May 09, 2011

What is “Out-of-Level” Content for the Digital Learner?

The influential Digital Learning Now! report provides a roadmap that lawmakers and policymakers can use to integrate digital learning into education. Among other elements, this report calls out the importance of personalized learning: the idea that all students can customize their education using digital content through an approved provider. A related concept called out by the report is that student learning is the metric for evaluating the quality of content and instruction.

I strongly support personalized learning, but I have long puzzled over how personalized learning and accurate measurement of student learning can be reconciled with standards-based assessment and accountability. The fundamental purpose of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation
“is to ensure that all children have a fair, equal, and significant opportunity to obtain a high-quality education and reach, at a minimum, proficiency on challenging State academic achievement standards and state academic assessments.”
There have been positive aspects to NCLB, to be sure, but the strict requirement for on-grade-level assessment of state-established content has narrowed the curriculum and stifled innovative assessment approaches. For example, because of this grade-level requirement the United States Department of Education (USED) discouraged the idea of computerized adaptive testing until only recently.

The on-grade-level requirement is also reflected in the 2007 regulations allowing students with disabilities to take modified assessments with modified achievement standards. These assessments apply to
“a limited group of students with disabilities who may not be able to reach grade-level achievement standards within the same time frame as other students.”
To satisfy these regulations, states developed assessments that reportedly measured regular grade-level content standards by using items that were simplified almost to the point of being caricatures of the items on the regular assessments. For example, some states created the modified items by removing the most attractive incorrect option, leaving three choices for students—the correct response and the two most obvious incorrect options. The alternate and quite logical idea of instructing this targeted group of students in prerequisite content commonly taught in earlier grades and assessing students accordingly is decidedly out of compliance with the regulations.

We are now embarking on a new era of educational reform, and President Obama has outlined his blueprint to reauthorize Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). It focuses on better preparing students for college and the workplace. It also emphasizes diversity of learners, innovation, and improving capacity at the state and district levels to support the effective use of technology. If done right, the new legislation will embrace the digital learner and the personalization of instruction and assessment. This can and should include measuring all learners against rigorous college and career-ready standards, but at the same time, it should encourage the use of technology to adapt instruction for the learner and adapt assessments to measure growth in learning—growth from the most appropriate (and possibly off grade level) starting point for the gifted student, the struggling student, or those in between.

In this brave new digital world, it seems to me that “on-grade-level content” may serve only as a milestone along the path towards the ultimate goal of college and career readiness. As long as instruction and assessment can be offered within a sequence supported by pedagogy or learning progressions, no content should be considered out-of-level for the digital learner.

Walter (Denny) Way , Ph.D.
Senior Vice President, Psychometric & Research Services
Assessment & Information