This article originally ran in Inside Philanthropy, authored by John Overdeck, President of Overdeck Family Foundation and co-founder and co-chair of Two Sigma Investments, LP.

If you were to walk into an American third-grade classroom today, you would see some students who are bored to distraction and others who can’t make sense of what they are being taught, some who are reading “Harry Potter” at home, and some who struggle to read at all. When it comes to the socio-emotional dimension, you’re also likely to see children who are not sure if the adults in their classrooms know them and understand what they’ve been through over the past few years.

We know that the pandemic widened preexisting opportunity and achievement gaps, hitting historically disadvantaged students hardest. According to a 2021 study from McKinsey, the pandemic has left K-12 students, on average, five months behind in mathematics and four months behind in reading, as of the end of the 2020-21 school year. In math, students in majority Black schools finished that year with an average of six months of unfinished learning, while those in low-income schools were seven months behind.

As a parent, engaged citizen and philanthropist, I am concerned about the number of children whose needs are not being met by the education system today — a concern the pandemic has only deepened. A recent study cited in The 74 found that classrooms in the U.S. may have achievement gaps of up to nine grade levels at any given time. It is disheartening to see opportunity lost for students who could be inspired to do so much more and alarming to see students quietly slipping further behind grade level with each new year.

As a parent, engaged citizen and philanthropist, I am concerned about the number of children whose needs are not being met by the education system today — a concern the pandemic has only deepened.

A powerful key to unlocking achievement

What can we offer to help bridge this growing gap? Over the last five years, Overdeck Family Foundation has invested over $220 million in organizations that aim to measurably improve academic and socio-emotional outcomes for children from birth to ninth grade. One of the emerging strategies we believe has the potential to address our current challenges is the structured use of formative assessments. Unlike summative assessments, which occur at the end of the year, formative assessments capture real-time data on individual student learning through tools such as diagnostics, non-graded quizzes and worksheets. Teachers then use this data to guide their teaching and adjust their lesson plans. When aligned with high-quality curriculum, formative assessments can unlock student learning, ensuring students are appropriately supported and challenged.

We know that not all formative assessments are beneficial. Recent analysis of formative assessments found that the majority of programs showed no strong benefits for students: Some RCTs have found weak gains in math and none in reading. However, when tied with high-quality instructional materials and paired with instruction-focused feedback for teachers, formative assessments have the potential to shift student outcomes. While there is more evidence to build, formative assessments may be more promising than smaller class sizes, keeping teachers with the same class for multiple grades, high-dosage tutoring, and even high-quality curricula.

What excites me about formative assessments is their use of predictive technology, which not only offers students real-time support but also reduces the operational burden on educators. For example, the best formative assessments provide teachers frequent insight into how a student is doing on certain tasks and offer specific suggestions on how to accelerate student learning. More advanced technology is already in development that can “hear” the phonics and fluency of a student reading out loud and assign a reading level that a teacher can use to inform the student’s learning trajectory, reducing the labor intensiveness of the assessment. Frequent use of formative assessments can also inspire a broader learning culture, developing a more flexible mindset for both teachers and students, and encouraging Carole Dweck’s well-researched mindset that it is acceptable to not know something yet.

What excites me about formative assessments is their use of predictive technology, which not only offers students real-time support but also reduces the operational burden on educators.

But while formative assessments are popular with educators — 94% use them to inform instruction, according to a July 2022 EdSolutions Assessment Market Landscape — designing effective assessments, pulling data from them, and translating that data into interventions is harder than it may seem. Potentially even more challenging is shifting the culture around formative assessments as a tool for learning and improvement, not formal assessment of skill.

Over the last five years, high-stakes summative assessments — whether final exams or end-of-year state tests — have suffered from declining public support. But the pandemic has made assessments more critical than ever, because without them, it is difficult to know how best to support and address individual student needs and learning.

A crucial role for philanthropy

Integrating formative assessments requires both technical and adaptive changes. That’s why it’s important for philanthropy to increasingly fund research and innovation in this area. There is so much opportunity: making ongoing assessments a regular and supportive part of learning and teaching, embedding “stealth” assessments that feel less like tests but provide engaging and meaningful ways for educators to assess learning, and using predictive technology to ensure students are getting the supports they need.

We know funding and creating cutting-edge, curriculum-aligned formative assessments will not be enough to address student needs. The data these assessments generate will need to be paired with well-designed analytical tools and supportive training for educators and school leaders so that they can quickly and effectively act upon assessment data in the classroom. Because this work is complex, we need groups with multiple stakeholders including policymakers, assessment experts, parents and teachers, along with funders who aspire to the same vision who can support the research, development and successful implementation of this new approach.

Last month, our foundation approved a grant to CenterPoint, which aligns assessments with high-quality instructional materials, saving teachers the time spent creating their own materials and providing them actionable data to support students. CenterPoint, which is also funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Hewlett Foundation, among others, goes beyond just showing a teacher what a student doesn’t know; it helps them see what students have familiarity with and encourages them to use that to support both remediation and acceleration.

It’s been over two years since COVID interrupted learning in America, and there is no better time than now to re-envision how we support students and teachers to access and assess learning in the moment. We know no single tool or technology can address the entire range of student needs, but formative assessments provide a promising place to focus. Their ability to empower the student and the educator by both accelerating and scaffolding student learning makes them a powerful tool for the challenges we face today. With enough support from education leaders, nonprofits and philanthropy, formative assessments can be designed to help ensure that today’s students can address unfinished learning, accelerate beyond, and be prepared for lifelong success.


Photo by Kenny Eliason on Unsplash