Credit: Lillian Mongeau/EdSource Today
A student displays a geometric figure she built with straws during a Common Core-based math lesson in her third grade classroom.

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Teachers who have long dreamed of alternatives to traditional methods for assessing students now have an avenue to put their prototypes to the test.

On Wednesday, the Advanced Education Research & Development Fund, an initiative that funds inclusive research and development projects about teaching and learning, announced a new national effort to analyze and mitigate achievement gaps between low-income and higher-income pre-K-12 students, called Assessment for Good.

“As districts embark on leading-edge, innovative formats for instruction this fall, assessment must also evolve in a complementary fashion,” said Temple Lovelace, director of the Assessment for Good program. “It is time for our assessment practices to foster promise and ignite learning in new and imaginative ways.”

High-quality research and development programs have swiftly taken innovations like a Covid-19 vaccine from idea to reality. But education settings often lack the time and funding needed to foster connections between practitioners and those studying how learning happens to successfully implement strategies that work.

With a total of $200 million, the fund will support project proposals from teachers, researchers, parents or product developers on how assessment could be done better. Between now and 2023, the program will select about five research ideas to span three to five years with budgets of $20 million to $40 million.

Assessment for Good on Wednesday announced it is seeking proposals for available funding for projects aimed at creative ways to assess students’ learning and “how learning environments support specific aspects of students’ emotional and identity development.” It is also calling on educators and other experts for information and ideas on how assessment could be done differently overall.

The initiative is already working with three founding school districts, including one California district, Vista Unified, a large suburban district in San Diego County.

“Hopefully this will help build a stronger case for more public investment and support for education R&D (research and development) over the long term,” said Stacey Childress, chief executive of the Advanced Education Research & Development Fund. “Just as the country invests in breakthroughs in sectors like medicine and energy, our programs will pursue ambitious goals in multiple areas that will help push our understanding of what’s possible for student learning and opportunity.”

Researchers behind the program say the overarching goal is to move away from the status quo related to supporting and measuring success for students experiencing poverty, from math lessons to discipline.

According to the American Institutes of Research, 21% of Latino students and 36% of Black students nationwide were been suspended or expelled in high school from 2009 to 2012, far higher than their white (14%) or Asian (6%) peers. Suspensions keep students out of class and cause them to miss crucial learning time, and program leaders are interested in solutions that bridge assessment with systemic challenges that Black and Latino students face in schools.

“We believe as a team that we can impact both of these concerning elements by creating better ways to gather information on the environment that students experienced each day,” Lovelace said. “We also believe that the current tools we use to gather information can be redesigned.”

A particular challenge that directors of the program point out is that Black and Latino students are frequently over-represented in special education classes. One goal of the program is to reverse that trend and increase access to rigorous math courses for student groups that have historically been placed into lower-level or remedial courses at disproportional rates.

The group is also interested in ways that parents can be more involved in measuring progress and ways to consider social and emotional needs around assessment.

The Assessment for Good program will live alongside the research and development fund’s existing effort called EF+Math, which aims to boost both math performance and executive function, which refers to the brain processes that enable humans to plan, focus attention, remember instructions and juggle multiple tasks successfully. The EF+Math program similarly funds research efforts but with a focus on improving mathematics outcomes for students in grades three to eight.

Launched in 2019, EF+Math has awarded several proposals and now works with more than 200 partners ranging from teachers to product developers. Awarded projects include a game called Fraction Ball, created by a team at UC Irvine’s School of Education and teachers at El Sol Science & Arts Academy in Santa Ana.

In Fraction Ball, a basketball court is divided into units so students can take shots worth fractions of a whole point and add up their total scores. The goal is to help students learn rational numbers on the basketball court using the cognition-based hypothesis that play-based active learning can improve students’ number sense and comfort with factions.

A central goal of both Assessment for Good and EF+Math is to reduce the time it takes to translate research into breakthrough programs like Fraction Ball that hold the potential to boost students’ learning.

“Success in math is critical to success in life,” said Melina Uncapher, director of the EF+Math program. “Every young person is already equipped with the skills needed to learn anything, particularly rigorous math. They deserve to be challenged with the best resources and opportunities. We focus on affirming the brilliance that already exists in each student by building research-informed, student-centered math learning systems.”

According to Lovelace, types of assessment innovations that the program will be looking for could include anything from more game-based programs like Fraction Ball, wearable technology or assessments that consider social and emotional health. Selected proposals will be evaluated by third-party researchers, Childress said. The first request for proposals will be open from Aug. 15-Sept. 1.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and the Walton Family Foundation together provided the $200 million for the program. In addition to Assessment for Good and EF+Math, the research and development fund plans to expand to five inclusive R&D programs on different topics by the end of 2023.

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