What Are Adaptive Assessments and Why Do They Seem So Difficult?

By: | 01/05/2021
Category: Data Culture

Simply defined, adaptive assessments are tests that individually assess students by providing a tailored set of test questions to determine where they are in their learning. The responsive nature of these tests makes them both efficient and precise. They are widely adopted across K–12 schools and districts and provide numerous benefits to teachers and students.

How Adaptive Assessments Differ from Most Education Assessments

Most assessments that students encounter during the year are known as “fixed-length assessments”: Every student who takes the assessment sees the same set of questions. End-of-unit paper-and-pencil tests and some (but not all) state accountability tests are examples of fixed-length assessments. While fixed-length assessments can be relatively easy to create, these types of tests don’t show what each student is truly capable of. There might be students who know even more than the questions required of them. Alternatively, there may be students who answered some questions incorrectly, but if given the opportunity, could demonstrate what they know with slightly easier questions. If the questions are the same for every student, the information their results provide may be limited.

Adaptive assessments, on the other hand, are nearly always computer-delivered and adjust as students take them (i.e., as students progress through a test, the questions they see are determined by whether they answered previous questions correctly). A series of correct answers will result in slightly harder questions, while a series of incorrect answers will yield slightly easier questions.

By adapting to student responses and assessing a broad range of skills—including skills above and below a student’s chronological grade—adaptive assessments (such as the i-Ready Diagnostic) pinpoint student proficiency levels, identify the specific skills students need to learn in order to accelerate their growth, and chart a personalized learning path for each student. Can fixed-length assessments provide the same information? Sure, but an adaptive assessment can provide detailed information in a fraction of the time with much more precision by administering only those test questions that are most relevant to determining an individual student’s knowledge and skill.

Adaptive Assessments Can Feel Difficult to Students

As students take an adaptive test, the difficulty of the questions changes, which is why some students may think these kinds of assessments feel difficult. The i-Ready Diagnostic, for example, adapts to provide questions that are up to one grade level higher in Mathematics and up to three grade levels higher in Reading as students take it.

Adaptive assessments are designed so students will answer some items incorrectly. This means the test is working! Indeed, wrong answers are necessary in order to identify where students are in their learning.

As useful as wrong answers might be, hard questions can leave students feeling frustrated and concerned that they failed. Families in turn, often share in this frustration.

“Frustration is normal. With adaptive assessments, it’s important to know that there is no such thing as ‘failing.’ In fact, there are no grades at all!” 

Educators can ease students’ and families’ worries by clearly communicating the nature and purpose of adaptive assessments. When doing so, it can be helpful to use an example of an annual eye exam. When you’re taking an eye exam, the ophthalmologist will make it harder and harder to complete vision tasks. They do this so they can find exactly what you need for a prescription. If an ophthalmologist gave you the equivalent of a “fixed-length” vision exam, you might be able to answer more questions correctly, but the exam could result in an imprecise prescription, leading to blurred vision and the problems that come with it.

At the end of the assessment, while the student may seem overwhelmed, the teacher is provided a framework that allows them to determine, with accuracy, where the student is in their learning—just like an eye doctor being able to give you glasses with the right prescription. In short, the teacher will know what the student knows, what they don’t know, and where their learning goes from there.

Student and Teacher Benefits of Adaptive Assessment

So how can an adaptive assessment like the i-Ready Diagnostic for Mathematics and for Reading help students and teachers?

For students, adaptive assessments can . . .

  • . . . pinpoint what they know and are ready to learn next, which results in . . .
  • . . . tailored instruction that is not too easy, but also not too difficult, which means . . .
  • . . . students get the instruction they need to make gains and improve their learning.

For teachers, adaptive assessments can . . .

  • . . . provide the data they need to make classroom- and student-level decisions, which means . . .
  • . . . they can determine learning needs quickly and efficiently, and in some cases reduce the total amount of time spent testing students, resulting in . . .
  • . . . fewer learning gaps, more individualized instruction, and less frustrated (and more engaged) students.

Learn More about i-Ready

The i-Ready Diagnostic is an adaptive assessment that enables teachers to set personalized learning paths for each student and leverage the i-Ready Assessment program to its fullest extent for classroom success—even if that classroom is remote.

Teacher and students sitting on the floor.

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