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Assessment is the Name of the Game

June 18, 2015

By Jane Canner, Ph.D.
Senior Education Advisor, Classroom, Inc.

Games can be—and are—meaningful vehicles for learning. But for learning games to be used on a large scale in schools, games must not only help students learn, but help them learn things of value that can be assessed and reported to teachers and students in meaningful ways.

To do this, it’s critical to introduce rigor to game-based learning, and to think seriously about designing games that are also good assessment engines. That is, we embed assessment directly into gameplay. There’s an expectation for new question types and features, especially as Common Core and other assessments go completely digital. That’s how games will be seen as accountable resources for learning, and that’s how the impact of game-based learning can be scaled nationally. (See a post in EdSurge from the Denver School of Science and Technology that discusses how to navigate this tricky terrain.)

Designing Games to Rigorous Standards & Assessing Students’ Reading Through Play

As a Gates Foundation Literacy Courseware Challenge grantee, we’re developing a series of rigorous learning games designed to target middle-level Common Core State Standards in reading and writing. Our first game After the Storm puts students as editor-in-chief of an online magazine the day after a hurricane tears through the community. As we build the game, we’re using lessons from a learning game we created in 2013, The Sports Network 2 (TSN-2).

The goal of TSN-2 was to develop a reading game for struggling 8th graders that would also assess students on CCSS in English Language Arts. In TSN-2, students play the role of managing director of a cable sports network that is losing its teen audience. Assessments are embedded at strategic points in the game’s narrative, engage students, require reading of complex informational text found in the daily grind of a busy workplace, and at the same time provide the teacher with performance data related to key standards.

Each embedded assessment centers around a piece of informational text or dialogue found in the daily grind of a busy workplace such as emails, articles, research, memos, or staff meetings. Interaction with the text using various game mechanics affords the ability to immediately assess understanding of what is being read.

The Power of Assessments in Learning Games

There are several lessons to share about how games can improve students’ reading and writing, and about the realities that schools face with new online tests.

  1. Struggling readers can read challenging texts when presented in an engaging learning game. Students continue to play through the game when faced with these challenging texts, demonstrating how game-based learning helps with persistence even on difficult tasks. Students who played TSN-2 got, on average, more than half of the 8th grade-level reading items embedded in the game correct. And, as an article from Education Week stated, you increase the chances of valid assessments if students are engaged.
  2. Adaptive instructional paths based on performance help students struggling to meet standards. Students perform better once supported and educators get real-time feedback to personalize instruction and identify what standards need to be reinforced.
  3. A digital reading game can assess and predict students’ performance on more traditional reading measures. Students’ scores on the TSN-2 embedded assessments were strongly correlated with scores on the standardized Measures of Academic Progress reading test, and—in After the Storm pilots—with students’ state English Language Arts scores. Learning games will been seen as effective instructional tools if they can demonstrate this correlation to other standard measures of learning.
  4. Online standardized tests present many challenges for schools. We noted problems that ranged from computer availability to lack of in-school technical support, and new question types only add to these challenges. The more that digital games can embed tools and features of digital standardized assessments, the better prepared schools will be as they implement the new tests.

Classroom, Inc. has educators, game designers, and researchers on staff. This combination of roles adds perspective within one organization, and has taught us that game developers need to think more carefully and report more fully on what learning games teach and assess, and how they capture and validate students’ in-game performance. Our experience suggests that educational game developers should:

  • Think about instruction and assessment from the outset as two sides of the same coin, not as an afterthought or as two distinct areas.
  • Collaborate with teachers and instructional and assessment specialists to design appropriate and innovative instructional tasks and assessments.
  • Figure out what kinds of information school administrators, teachers, parents, and students need, leaving aside assumptions about traditional reporting modes.

Following these criteria, we will greatly increase the chances that high-quality learning games with assessment capabilities are developed, adopted widely in schools, and ultimately help students learn and teachers teach more effectively.

This post has been edited. The original post appeared on the Games + Learning website