Interview | Shilpi Niyogi Assesses Education

As part of Pearson, the world’s leading learning company, the Assessment & Information group remains committed to improving the lives of people by championing innovation that embraces higher standards, teacher effectiveness, college and career readiness, school improvement, and applications for mobile and virtual learning. With more than 130 years of combined experience in the clinical, educational and talent assessment fields, the group that Shilpi Niyogi contributes to as Executive Vice President, provides educational assessment products, data, services and solutions in all subjects, grades and content areas for states and large school districts, as well as nationally. “We strive to assist national leaders in accelerating the transformation of education programs, policies and practices,” says Shilpi. Here, Shilpi shares what that means with you as well as what her thoughts are on the tools, technologies and programs that are shaping the future of education—she also invites your participation in a special project…

Victor: What is your view on the role assessments play in the education process?

Shilpi: Assessments have the potential to not only inform but also provide insight into student learning and performance – ultimately facilitating personalized instruction and accelerating student growth. Our vision for the future of education centers on a virtuous circle where technology enables teachers to assess students, diagnose their learning needs, prescribe personalized learning and monitor student progress. This ongoing cycle of feedback to students, teachers and parents begins by optimizing assessment data and putting it to work for continuous improvement in student progress and teaching.

Victor: How is technology changing how we manage student assessment?

Shilpi: Technology is changing every aspect of student assessment, from test development and delivery through scoring and reporting. For example, technology enables us to expand the use of performance assessments by making it more scalable and affordable. Innovative, online items or question types allow students to manipulate objects and conduct experiments in a simulated science lab. Online, distributed scoring technologies enable us to significantly expand performance scoring of student essays and other complex tasks. Artificial-intelligence technologies are routinely used to automatically score speaking, listening, reading and writing performances. In teacher training and credentialing, e-portfolios allow teacher candidates to upload videos of their classroom performance for trained assessors to review and score. Other examples of how technologies are changing student assessment include opportunities to reduce testing time and provide rapid reporting of student scores. We can reduce testing time through adaptive technologies that pinpoint questions to a student’s knowledge and skills.

Victor: What kinds of innovative things is Pearson doing with technology and assessments to meet the needs of today’s students?

Shilpi: The transition itself represents broad innovation, and Pearson has the deepest level of experience in helping states with the transformation from paper-and-pencil to online assessment. Once the technology is in place, more opportunities for innovation will be fostered, as the systems will be sustainable, allowing for continuous improvement as well as cost savings over time.

Victor: What are the benefits of online assessments to schools, districts, states? What about to students?

Shilpi: Online assessment will enable more innovative item types, more efficient scoring capabilities, better security, greater equity and engagement for students and, ultimately, decreased costs. States and districts realize the potential and want to move forward, but the professional and technical resources required to make the switch can be daunting. However, the transition is under way. For instance, at the Maryland Assessment Conference in October 2010, it was noted that 44 U.S. states currently have begun computer-based testing initiatives.

Most students today use computers, smart phones, social networks and other emerging technologies on a daily basis. It’s the norm in their personal lives, but at school, their interaction with technology varies greatly.

Victor: What impact does online assessment have on student achievement? How is it different from the impact of traditional pen-and-paper assessments?

Shilpi: As I said before, online assessment will enable more innovative item types, more efficient scoring capabilities, better security, greater equity and engagement for students and, ultimately, decreased costs. For example, it will allow students to manipulate symbols and graphics online. A classic example is the water cycle, which typically is presented in a textbook illustration depicting sunshine, evaporation, rain and condensation. The same question can be shown through computer simulation, allowing kids to drag and drop, build labels and tag information. The assessment can better demonstrate the students’ understanding while also engaging them in the evaluation.

Victor: I understand that you’ve launched an open, online Wiki to collect information from educators on how to best make the transition to online assessments. How did this idea come about?

Shilpi: We first had the idea to develop and publish a roadmap, but then, when looking at how many people and organizations this issue affected and how dynamic this issue is, we felt that the wiki was the way to start. It’s a case of “the medium is the message” – ultimately, this transition is all about moving to a dynamic, interactive mode of teaching and learning informed by ongoing assessment.

States are under pressure to rally the technological and professional resources to have fully operational common assessments complete by 2014, as mandated by the U.S. Department of Education’s Race to the Top competition and both the PARCC and Smarter Balanced assessment consortia. All but five states are members of these consortia, and those five have individual state policies with the similar goals of moving their assessments online. This is a complex issue, but one that will increasingly influence the entire education community – teachers, administrators, students and parents – and play a role in how education reform plays out. Online testing can be a lynchpin in reform strategies around personalized learning, where students access content and assessment at their own pace, and data on achievement is readily available.

We created the wiki, called “Considerations for Next-Generation Assessments: A Roadmap to 2014” to invite the open dialogue that we believe is necessary to support this massive change. State leaders, school district staff, and organizations or individuals with interest and expertise in the transition to online testing can contribute openly and discuss the challenge of how to simultaneously administer state assessments over the next 3 years while also planning for the transition to online assessments. The wiki is currently populated with five initial steps and a case study of one successful implementation, but we hope that edits and commentary bolster that content. You can view and register for the Wiki at http://www.PearsonAssessments.com/NextGenRoadmap. The roadmap will ultimately be finalized in a digital and hard-copy publication intended to guide states.

Victor: Why did Pearson take this approach to collecting information from educators?

Shilpi: To date, no organization or individual we know of has tackled this very specific challenge – to provide states guidance for how to adapt their accountability assessment programs to an online platform without causing interruption to the almost year-round cycle of developing, testing, administering and reporting annual tests. We have deep and on-the-ground experience helping states including Virginia and Maryland transition to online assessments. But, let me also be clear that while we have helpful expertise, no one at Pearson believes we have all the answers. That’s why we’ve created the wiki, to enable “crowd-sourced intelligence,” if you will. We’ve also engaged other experts and organizations such as the Alliance for Excellent Education, the Council of Chief State School Officers, Digital Learning Now, CoSN, and the State Educational Technology Directors Association so that the resulting roadmap will offer a more comprehensive guide to this terrain, from a variety of perspectives.

Victor: Why do you think it is important for educators to be involved in this process?

Shilpi: Our kids – our students – live in a digital world, and our schools need to become a seamless part of that world. The transition to online assessment is one critical step in the larger transition to digital learning. It’s critical that states understand key considerations associated with the transition to online assessments – and more importantly, that they are equipped to develop and implement their own transitional plan based on various state factors.

Victor: What kinds of things are you learning from educators participating in the Wiki?

Shilpi: We’ve just recently launched the Wiki and have nearly 100 users registered. Participation has been light, so we are trying to encourage folks to contribute. All perspectives are needed if we are truly to be able to represent the collective wisdom on this topic.

Victor: What are you planning to do with the results from the Wiki?

Shilpi: All input obtained through the wiki will be considered for inclusion in a published paper, which, like the wiki, will be titled “Considerations for Next-Generation Assessments: A Roadmap to 2014.” It will be published in June and also shared in a live workshop in June when the Council of Chief State School Officers convenes assessment officials at its annual National Conference on Student Assessment in Orlando.

The roadmap is intended to be used as a guide for state and local education technology and assessment leaders, policymakers, national education leaders and other education organizations as they map out plans for a successful transition to online assessments.

Victor: Is it still possible for educators to participate in the Wiki? 

Shilpi: The Wiki will be live throughout May, and we encourage everyone – whether you’re a teacher or a state chief – to weigh in. In June, changes will be reviewed by Pearson and external partners, and an official roadmap will be published at the same URL, http://www.PearsonAssessments.com/NextGenRoadmap, for public access and continued input.

Victor: What formative experiences in your own education helped to inform your approach to online assessments? 

Shilpi: I could argue that my interest in education is genetic. Both of my parents are the children of professors, and education has been the profession of numerous folks in my family – so it’s played a big part in the values I was raised with. I am a first-generation immigrant to the U.S., and I’m always thankful for the education I received and the opportunities that have evolved from it.

Victor: What else would you tell educators or leaders in education about the value of online assessments?

Shilpi: Our public education system has the opportunity to truly be the great equalizer, by ensuring that every single student has a chance to reach his or her potential as a full citizen and as a part of the global economy. I’m hopeful that together, technology and the reform effort will yield faster, more effective change than we’ve seen before.

Victor: What is your outlook on the future of education?

Shilpi: The current set of reforms in our education system is growing out of a convergence of forces, where we’re seeing rapidly changing technology and a global economy with global competition for jobs. This feeds a growing sense within states and districts across America that we really have to transform teaching and learning for our students so they can compete and succeed in this new era. A big part of that transformation includes the role of assessments, and how they’ll allow insight into individual student strengths and weaknesses in ways that help teachers customize instruction based on that information.

Those of us who design and deliver assessments in collaboration with states across the U.S. are preparing for this transformation and are excited about the potential to help better students’ lives and make our nation more competitive.

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Victor Rivero tells the story of 21st-century education transformation. He is the editor-in-chief of EdTech Digest, a magazine about education transformed through technology. He has written white papers, articles and features for schools, nonprofits and companies in the education marketplace. Write to: victor@VictorRivero.com

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