Stealth assessment: Reimagining learning and testing for the 21st Century

**The Edvocate is pleased to publish this guest post on stealth assessment as a way to fuel important conversations surrounding P-20 education in America. The opinions contained within guest posts are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of The Edvocate or Dr. Matthew Lynch.**

A guest post by Dr. Gregory Firn

History is replete with examples of innovation and invention that outpaced the necessary shifts in thinking and ingrained habits delaying the full impact of the “new.” It comes as no surprise that education has lagged behind innovation. However, many of the factors underpinning educational lag are beyond the control of the classroom teacher.

Fueled by the proliferation of technology, we are in the early stages of “reimagining” teaching and learning. We have learned the hard way that devices alone will not result in the much-promised transformation of teaching and learning. The presence of devices in education has revealed limitations, constraints, and liabilities in several ways. Chief among these has been the reluctance or outright resistance to necessary shifts in instructional methodology and practices. This is both natural and expected.

Instructional shifts are complicated by the expectation that classroom teachers have the requisite capacities, competencies, and confidences to navigate technology-rich as well as technology-challenged learning environments. Another challenge is the diversity and variance of technology skill, knowledge, and experience of learners.

Other constraints include budget and time, as well as the very real issue of access to reliable broadband connectivity—not to mention bandwidth and device compatibility, availability, and functionality. All of these limitations place teachers in a perplexing and conflicted position. They may indeed want to shift practice, but can’t.

Arguably, the restrictions and adverse impact of narrowly defined accountability models, including the obsession with assessments, will not necessarily go away with the much-heralded reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (otherwise known as the Every Student Succeeds Act). States must now begin the process of figuring out their assessments and assessment schedules. However, the daunting challenges of reimagining teaching and learning in this digital age remain.

I posit that, against this backdrop, teaching and learning cannot and will not be fully reimagined without the awareness, understanding, and application of assessment and instruction congruency. Instruction and assessment cannot be separated or thought to be two independent components of the teaching and learning process. The true promise and application of technology is in its ability to provide feedback in the form of information and insight during the learning process—not just at the end of a learning activity.

Evidence of certain competencies cannot be monitored and measured through traditional assessment practices. Thus, expanding assessment thinking and design are essential to navigating a reimagined version of teaching and learning.

Stealth assessment in the classroom

One method that is slowly gaining momentum is “stealth” assessment. The key to stealth assessment is its unobtrusive nature, which has roots in gaming. The idea is that a player’s choices and strategies are constantly and consistently informing the player of their progress and success. Applied to education, stealth assessment presents a powerful step in minimizing and eventually closing the teaching and learning immediacy loop.

The immediacy of feedback is critical. For far too long, we have focused on the trailing indicators of learning. Technology now affords us the ability to focus on the leading indicators of both teaching and learning. In fact, we can now at best disrupt or at worst interrupt the failure to learn, rather than continuing to remediate failed learning.

Disrupting the failure to learn does not necessarily mean disrupting the learning process. For example, as more teachers adopt project-based learning, their ability to peek inside the learning process by monitoring the collaboration, construction, contribution, and co-authoring of meaning by each learner is critical. Yet the challenge for the educator to be in all places at once has never been more daunting.

As a Superintendent, I have seen that technology can help address this challenge and make stealth assessment possible. For example, the Flexcat system from Lightspeed Learning is a powerful tool to implement  “stealth” assessment. Flexcat gives teachers the ability to listen to any small group on demand, without students knowing. This allows teachers to monitor and assess authentic interactions and collaboration from anywhere in the room—a giant step towards personalized teaching and learning.

Present and future technologies should cause a fundamental shift in instruction due to the stealth assessment concept, not just a minor adjustment. As I mentioned above the teacher and learner are empowered to monitor, provide and receive immediate feedback as well as participate in the thoughts, insights, and observations of learning as it is occurring. Participatory learning and participatory assessing are fundamental to the “student as worker, teacher as guide” mindset in which learners as key architects of their own learning. They co-author, co-construct, and co-produce knowledge, meaning and application. Moreover, critical thinking; examination; and assessing ideas, concepts, and constructs are essential skills in the 21st century.

Technology is a powerful tool that presents the opportunity and access for each learner to design, construct, collaborate, demonstrate, and assess their learning. To ensure this impact, educators must remain vigilant in their own learning to develop the capacity, competence, and confidence to shift instructional practices leveraged by technology to give each learner the best possible chance at success.

Dr. Gregory Firn has served as a Superintendent, Deputy Superintendent, and in several other educational leadership roles in Texas, North Carolina, Connecticut, Washington State, Nevada, and overseas. Dr. Firn twice led systemwide digital transformation initiatives, including the design and implementation of robust human capital development programs. Dr. Firn earned his doctorate from Seattle Pacific University, where his research focused on learner-centered education. 

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