This year marks the 80th birthday of the IBM 805 test scoring machine.  

First sold in 1938, it used a contact plate with an electric current, along with a standardized exam paper (think multiple-choice bubble sheets) to detect pencil marks, compare them against an answer key and automatically pop out a score in mass quantities. It was a revolutionary piece of equipment that changed the way we took written tests.

Since then, new technologies have emerged in the classroom to aid in student learning, but the systems used to assess that learning has been much slower to adapt. The IBM 805 is no longer in use, but its legacy remains as the multiple-choice tests of yore moved onto digital platforms with few changes.

In a world where big data and artificial intelligence are providing new insights into how the rest of our world works – from economics to entertainment and everything in between – we’re on the cusp of an assessment renaissance of sorts, with new approaches already appearing on the fringes of current practice.

New technologies have emerged in the classroom to aid in student learning, but the systems used to assess that learning has been much slower to adapt

Those advances bring with them five major trends in how teachers will assess students. Here’s how we can expect educational technology to help make our students successful in our 21st-century world.

1. Holistic measurement

Many aspects of “big picture” student performance aren’t easily captured by traditional testing, like high-order thinking, interpersonal development, problem-solving abilities and deep learning.

To address this, we’re already starting to change the way we ask questions, pose problems, assign projects and evaluate the outcomes to allow students the freedom to find a solution in different ways. Open-ended demonstration or project-based learning are just two examples of that, where students can take ownership of their work and show their learning in ways that interest them.

Improvements in simulations, like those provided by video games that model real earth physics, promise more freedom and interactivity in manipulating different variables to reach the desired outcome.

2. Continuous testing

Sometimes referred to by the inauspicious term “stealth assessments,” the idea behind continuous testing is simple: weaving assessments into the fabric of classroom activity in a natural, unobtrusive way.

That could mean observing students during class work and routines, or monitoring their responses to instruction, with the goal of tracking progress on a regular (perhaps daily) basis to help plan and adjust instruction.

None of this would be possible without the right tools in place – performing formative assessments that regularly would simply be too demanding on teachers to sustain over a school year.

3. Real-time, data-driven insights

With data from student work flowing through specialized software and algorithms, classrooms will benefit not only from rich analysis across new measures of student performance and the meaningful insights that result from it, but also from the speed at which they get that information.

Tools that automate analysis provide results for mountains of data in real time, meaning teachers can make adjustments based on what’s happening right now instead of what happened weeks or months ago. It also takes the burden of analysis off of teachers, allowing them to spend more time actually acting on the results.

4. Tailored learning

As we capture more and more student data, from classroom performance to assessment outcomes, teachers will be able to track not only what’s happening in their classroom but how each individual student is learning.

The end goal is to truly tailor instruction based on what a student knows, assess what they’re ready to learn next or where they need help, and provide individualized support to get there. Initiatives like adaptive testing are an example of this gaining in popularity, as it allows teachers to evaluate student knowledge and act on it in real time.

5. Shifts in Scoring

Some micro-schools, particularly in New York and Silicon Valley, are experimenting with alternatives to number or letter grades.

As they shift student work towards demonstration and project-based learning, they’re also replacing traditional methods of evaluation with rubrics that define a set number of criteria all focused on quality. Some are also focusing on feedback over grades so students understand how they can make their work better.

It’ll be a while before we see any of these trends hit the mainstream; though they’re all in the works in some way or another, there are still a few bridges to cross.

We’ll need to see the continued development and integration of many different platforms to really get a full picture of student and classroom progression and performance.

Still, seeing just how far we’ve come from the first automated test scoring machines, that’s five reasons to get excited for the future of teaching.

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