Assessment for Learning: A New Grant Opportunity

Today, we’re excited to launch the Assessment for Learning Project, an initiative designed to help educators, innovators, and researchers fundamentally rethink the roles assessment plays in K-12 learning models. Led by the Center for Innovation in Education, in partnership with NGLC and our design partner 2Revolutions, the Assessment for Learning Project will support 12-15 grants with investments of varying size and duration from an initial pool of nearly $2 million. Please visit the project’s home page on the NGLC website to learn more.

The launch of this initiative happens to coincide with “Back to the Future” week, which for the non-movie buffs out there marks the date that the time-travelling hero of this 1985 movie arrived in...The Future. It’s been an occasion to reflect on the imagined future of the movie (hovering skateboards) compared with the reality of today (SIRI and self driving cars!). For education buffs like us, we’ve also entered another Future: the post-2014 world envisioned by policymakers who set in motion a sea change in assessment and accountability in 2001. And so, in the spirit of Back to the Future day, it’s a great moment to reflect on the lessons learned over the last fifteen years.

The launch of the ALP provides an opportunity to do just that, and it reflects our belief that it’s time to revisit some of the most fundamental questions about assessment in public education today:

What do we assess? How and when do we assess? And most importantly, Why do we assess?

This is not because we believe the assumptions driving assessment and accountability in public education are “wrong.” Instead, it’s because we know that it’s essential to frequently reflect upon our goals, take stock of what we’ve learned so far, and chart a path between where we are now and where we want to go. This is true whether the “we” in question is a student, a community of educators, or a country that is committed to ensuring every child has a motivating and challenging education.

What do we assess? The discussions about “college and career ready” standards today are less about whether core academic skills are necessary, but rather whether they’re sufficient. Teachers, researchers, lots of college dropout data, and—frankly—common sense tell us there’s a whole range of other things that students need to develop in order to be successful postsecondary learners, participants in the modern economy, and citizens. And yet, the vast majority of our investment in assessment has been focused solely on the skills embodied in academic standards. It’s time to invest in deepening our understanding of what it means to measure the broader range of competencies and dispositions that we refer to as “deeper learning” and “student agency." 

How and when do we assess? Great teachers have always grounded their instruction in formative assessment that gives students the chance to demonstrate learning through multiple measures, and beyond foundational skills. Developments in technology and school design have the potential to extend these practices to more classrooms, and to evolve new ways of providing feedback and demonstrating mastery. But right now we are only scratching the surface. It’s time to invest in understanding how to embed formative and performance-based assessment more deeply, more meaningfully, and more frequently into the learning process.

Why do we assess? Since the turn of the millennium, public education has been defined by an increasing emphasis on high stakes accountability based on backward-looking assessment of learning. Reasonable people can disagree on the role that summative, standardized assessments should play, but few would argue that they are the optimal tool for informing teaching and learning on a day-to-day basis. If learning is to become more personalized and more relevant, we need to ensure that every teacher (and every student!) has consistent access to information that helps them decide where to go next, not just where they’ve been. In other words, we need to invest in deepening our understanding of assessment FOR learning.

And hence: the Assessment for Learning Project. We call this a Request for Learning rather than a traditional RFP because we (the Assessment for Learning Project partners, and the field at large) don’t begin to have all the answers to these crucially important questions. With the RFL, we want to mimic the kind of thinking and design that we want to promote in projects that are funded. We don't want to force applicants to reshape their good ideas to fit our preconceived notions of scope, budget, or duration. That's why you can propose your own grant period (6-24 months), your own budget ($50K to $225K), and the nature of what you'll devote your grant to supporting (primarily planning, primarily testing/refining). The only requirement is that you enter into this with the spirit of a learner, because there is so much to be learned about what new roles for assessment for learning—especially in these new personalized learning models—looks like.

The deadline is December 10, 2015. Take a look. On behalf of all of this project’s partners, we hope you’ll consider applying.

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