Clashes over testing in K–12 schools have grown in intensity in recent years. In some quarters, parents decry the over-testing of their children, for example, whereas others point out the need for testing for accountability over the use of public funds.

Fewer talk about how important assessment is for learning—for students and teachers—because our education system emphasizes the use of statewide, standardized summative assessments to evaluate learning at the end of a school year, as opposed to formative assessments. These summative assessments often have no stakes for students and their results are released well past the time they could have any significant impact on learning.

I’ve written in the past about how embracing competency-based learning could allow us to break the false tradeoffs between summative and formative assessments and allow us to embrace “moderating” assessments that would serve both purposes. Moderating assessments could both inform students and teachers about next steps in their learning and have real stakes attached to them that allowed for a far richer picture of results in near real time—as opposed to just annually—which would increase transparency and the potential for accountability. What’s more, this could allow assessments to become far shorter and more seamless with everyday learning, which would eliminate the large periods of time dedicated for testing in the school year that take away from learning and create undue stress. This could also allow for more creative and complex types of assessments. My colleague Julia Freeland has also written about this opportunity, most recently in terms of how formative assessments are poised to disrupt summative assessments.

A case study by Meredith Liu titled “Cisco Networking Academy: Next-generation assessments and their implications for K–12 education” released yesterday by the Clayton Christensen Institute profiles how the Academy, a comprehensive online training curriculum offered to third-party education institutions to help high school and college students acquire the fundamental skills needed to design, build, and troubleshoot computer networks, uses technology today to deliver assessments in ways starkly different from our current education system. The Academy now delivers roughly one million assessments per month in a variety of formats and its efforts shed light on how technology in K–12 education could help create a more robust and healthier assessment environment in the future.

There are several promising practices that the Academy uses and insights that the Academy has that are worth highlighting with this goal in mind.

An online-delivery system is the backbone of the Academy’s assessment program. As opposed to traditional pencil-and-paper assessments, the online portal delivers assessments with greater ease and lower marginal costs. This saves time for instructors and encourages them to use the optional assessments in a more frequent, formative manner.

The technology also allows for a greater variety in assessment types. Yes, there are multiple choice and fill-in-the-blank test items, but there are also robust simulation tasks and game-based assessments that create a far richer picture of what students know and are able to do.

An important benefit of the Academy’s online system is its instantaneous and automatic scoring and feedback of all these assessment types. Because Cisco Systems sees assessment as primarily learning-based rather than evaluative, it seeks to deliver better data—particularly through the scoring of complex tasks through its simulation program—that can be used quickly. In the traditional K–12 classroom, teachers struggle to find the time to grade complex tasks. But with automatic scoring and the appropriate analytical tools, teachers could learn rapidly about what their students know and adjust instruction quickly. The fact that Cisco’s elaborate simulations can be scored automatically lends hope to the K-12 education system that we can measure things that were previously too expensive or challenging to evaluate. Advancements in technology are making it possible to deliver and score such assessments at reasonable costs.

Seamless assessments also create a data-rich environment that improves the content, the teaching quality, and the quality of the assessment items themselves. Because assessments are not an afterthought in the Academy, but instead are an integral part of the curriculum that are seen as key to the efficacy of the Academy and are aligned with content and instructional delivery, the online system is able to support the mission of continuous improvement by allowing updates to the entire package of content and assessments to be rolled out behind the scenes with no interruptions to learning—and teachers can receive insights on why their students may be struggling in certain areas compared to students elsewhere in ways far less intrusive than our current K–12 system requires. In addition, the continuous feedback loop allows the Academy not only to improve current content or assessments items but also to create new, innovative types of content and assessments. Having such an approach would shorten the development cycle for K-12 assessments, which often lag updates in curricular content.

The Academy also has much to teach players in K–12 education about assessment item creation, as it offers an affordable way to create lots of assessment items that are robust. It combines a crowd-sourced approach to assessment item creation with strong verification procedures to maintain high quality and be sure that assessments actually measure the knowledge or skills that they purport to measure.

Finally, the Academy also leverages its online platform and continuous improvement processes to balance standardization with local customization by giving instructors on the ground the autonomy to choose the right mix of assessments for their students’ local needs.

Ultimately, the Cisco Networking Academy’s diverse assessment system and its flexibility should be an entree to move toward a competency-based learning system in which time is variable but learning is constant and help break the false trade-offs in assessment that exist because of today’s current system that holds time as a constant and learning as a variable. Doing so would also help break through the fights between warring camps in education whose arguments both have merit but need not be diametrically opposed.


  • Michael B. Horn
    Michael B. Horn

    Michael B. Horn is Co-Founder, Distinguished Fellow, and Chairman at the Christensen Institute.