Can teachers give a test online and still show they care?

Last week, I had the chance to attend a meeting of the National Conference on School Assessment. The audience is largely state superintendents, so I was pleasantly surprised when one idea posed there immediately made me think of something that might help in my son’s online sixth-grade classroom: opportunity-to-learn measures. Here’s what one looks like:

Original test question: What number can you multiply 3 by to get 15?

Opportunity-to-learn question: Have your teachers shown you what a multiplication table is?

Before hitting on three big advantages of opportunity-to-learn questions, see if this sounds familiar to you. As the remote school year began, my son was hit up with what I imagine millions of students are seeing: lots of little online tests. His teachers, like so many caring teachers, wanted to know what their incoming students remembered from last year, what basics they could do on their own, what they struggled with.

But for the 11-year-old being asked to answer these questions in the first week of school, this felt like he was being judged on a barrage of demands out of the blue (“What would you divide 27 into to get 9? Show your work.” “How would you go about multiplying 1/3 by 1/12? Explain your thinking.”), each question slowly squeezing him like a balloon, until, finally, he burst into tears.

If in person, he would have been able to kvetch to friends that this test wasn’t quite what he was ready for. But no friends around.

If in person, the teacher would have better explained that this was a diagnostic (and just how he was supposed to show his work with nothing but a keyboard and a mouse). But no such explanation.

If in person, there would have been pauses when students would look around, think, seek reassurance from the teacher, draw upon the physical space to be reminded of learning, but no such breathing room.

Instead, he was on his own at one end of a computer screen, recalling spoken instructions that had been shared in a Google Meet, unsure of how he was doing.

The small addition of the right opportunity-to-learn questions would have done three things.

First, they would alleviate stress. The opportunity-to-learn question (“Have your teachers shown you…?”) shifts judgment from being of students to being by them. Going back to experiments by Claude Steele and Josh Aronson in the mid-90’s, it is clear that if you frame tests as a judgment of a student, then those students — particularly students of color and particularly students who have been sent negative messages in the past — do badly on the tests. But if you frame tests as a student’s chance to diagnose what they know, those same students do far better. Student voice and agency are not only meaningful, they are also engaging.

Second, they would diagnose learning, not just knowledge. The teacher who collected those mini-tests from her new students collected a bunch of answers to math problems. The pressure to show growth on tests may make teachers feel it is better to show in a diagnostic how little students knew at first so that they can later see how much they have learned. But we already know that that makes students feel stressed out. By pairing test questions with opportunity-to-learn questions to ask straight out what students learned, teachers are finding out far more about what they need to do next: Teach anew? Ask students how they were taught? Consider groupings of students to help each other?

Third, they would connect solutions to strategies. Note that this particular opportunity-to-learn measure asked about an aspect of a strategy (multiplication tables) that the teacher assumes students would use to solve the problem (single-digit multiplication). While students may very well have multiple strategies to solve problems, priming them to actively access those strategies is, at its heart, what lasting learning is all about. With this, the teacher accesses something more flexible and meaningful than the answer to a single trial math problem (after all, 9x3=27 is one of a million specific answers) but rather to an underlying concept and strategy that can lead to hundreds of solutions.

A happy ending: A few days after he had burst into tears, my son had his first day of in-person school (we opted into a hybrid model). He happily reported how much better his math teacher is at in-person than online schooling. She is, it would seem, good at the reassurance that students count on in those diagnostics, at the pauses that they get to have in a classroom, at the room for kvetching that lets them feel connected.

This is the human side of teaching. When we separate the test from the human environment and turn the teacher into a remote administrator of learning, we have dramatically changed the nature of school. This has been an issue with state testing for years, but perhaps now — now that millions of students are experiencing every day of school the way they experience a once-a-year state test — more people will understand better just how big a difference human interaction makes. In the meantime, I encourage teachers and principals to think of how opportunity-to-learn measures can be part of what they do for and with their students, in every assessment, but especially in those given in the anodyne environment of online learning.

Founder of Eskolta School Research & Design. Education reformer, husband & father living in New York City.