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The Top 5 Challenges of Assessing K-8 Students in 2021

Ask a local official or a business leader what STEM means, and they may have an answer for you. “It’s Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics,” they might say. They might go on to talk about STEM careers, and how engineers and computer programmers make good money and are in demand. They might even talk about how we need more science teachers to teach STEM.

They would not be completely wrong. But they wouldn’t be completely correct, either.

As those in the education system know, STEM is more than an acronym grouping four subjects together, and the same is true of STEAM (adding the Arts into STEM). That’s because STEM and STEAM are teaching philosophies that integrate their disciplines into a single interconnected and transdisciplinary program which uses inquiry-driven teaching methods to equip students with the skills and knowledge they will need to succeed in the real world.

STEM and STEAM are far more revolutionary than most parents or community leaders realize. They are an entirely different way of teaching, which requires a different approach to other facets of education as well.

Take assessments. If a typical STEAM lesson touches several disciplines at once, could STEAM students be assessed in the old way, with a pencil and a test sheet covering a single subject at a time?

Of course not. Therein lies one of the challenges of assessing students in STEAM. Let’s discuss the 5 biggest challenges of STEAM assessments, after which we’ll discuss how you can learn the solutions and best practices to assess STEAM in 2021.

Disconnected Assessments

We’ve already brushed upon the first challenge. Far from being a simple grouping of 4-5 subjects, STEM and STEAM are distinctly different from the teaching methodologies of yesteryear. Where once Mathematics (for example) was taught solely by Math teachers or confined to the Math portion of the curriculum, in a STEAM-powered classroom the various disciplines are mixed seamlessly to enhance student learning and simulate how knowledge is utilized in the real world.

This is what we mean by the transdisciplinary and interconnected aspects of STEAM. Lessons are taught with a mixture of several disciplines, but assessments are often still devoted to a single subject at a time.

This is like hiring someone to build a house, and then assessing them based on each house-building discipline individually—foundation, framing, plumbing, electrical, roofing—but never assessing whether it’s a good house overall. Perhaps the plumbing and roofing and every other sub-discipline is done well, but without assessing the project as a whole—without determining whether it’s a good house—the assessment could miss the forest for the trees.

Education is different from house building, of course, but it’s important to remember that with STEAM and STEM, they’re not as different as they may seem. If students are taught via interconnected projects that mix the various disciplines, a pen-and-paper assessment on a single subject will miss the real-world complexity of their STEAM lessons. Rather than continuing to treat students as passive consumers of knowledge, STEAM assessments should treat them as active participants in a process-driven application of knowledge.

Disconnected Content

Another key challenge of STEM assessments has to do with the content itself. The interdisciplinary aspect of STEAM education does not just happen. Adding engineering to a science lesson doesn’t make it a STEAM lesson, nor does it automatically make for better learning outcomes.

To teach in a STEAM way, educators must create or seek out interdisciplinary content and ensure that content is adapted to fit their classroom. Without content that blends the various disciplines and can be taught in an interconnected fashion, it doesn’t matter how good your assessments are—they will always be disconnected, because the lessons are disconnected.

It’s this intentionality behind connecting various disciplines that produces learning outcomes that mimic life beyond the classroom. Without content that consistently melds the disciplines and educates in a transdisciplinary manner, STEAM assessments won’t function properly. The STEAM lessons need to be there first.

Inconsistent Implementation

The third challenge has to do with implementation. While many STEM programs make an effort at establishing interconnected lessons that meld multiple disciplines, implementation can be inconsistent. Sometimes a lesson accomplishes this wonderfully, and would benefit from a STEAM assessment. Other times, lessons are no different than the disconnected content we’ve already discussed.

This is true both within a single teacher’s or a school’s STEM program, as well as across districts, states, and countries as a whole. Because STEM is still on the rise and there are no formalized standards, it’s often up to schools or teachers to decide how to teach it. This leaves teachers trying to fashion integrated curriculums and assessment standards on top of their already busy schedules.

To make matters worse, many STEM programs do not go into detail about how they integrate and connect the various disciplines. This adds to the difficulty, because it makes it harder for educators to know what, exactly, they should be assessing for each lesson. Whether inconsistent implementation, poor documentation, or failing to connect lessons to assessments, these execution problems make STEAM assessment more difficult.

Teacher helping young boy with writing lesson

No Room To Personalize

Another challenge born from typical pen-paper assessments is their rigidity. Often—though not always—traditional assessments are meant to assess certain things in certain ways. This results in issues such as teaching to the test or a focus on memorization, rather than critical thinking.

These are well known issues, and ones that many educators do an excellent job of navigating. There’s another angle to consider when it comes to STEM assessments: lack of personalization.

More so than many other teaching methods, STEM and STEAM are ripe for personalized instruction. The iterative, holistic, and problem-solving nature of STEAM allows educators to tweak and change subsequent cycles of learning to the needs of their students. This is true of both lessons and assessments, for if lessons are personalized and assessments are not, the assessments will become disconnected from what is being taught and learned.

The importance of personalization in STEAM cannot be understated. Without personalization, schools run the risk of forcing students to conform to class averages rather than a true assessment of strengths and weaknesses. If assessments do not help guide a student along their personal learning journey, students end up disengaged. The STEAM framework provides a remarkable opportunity for this kind of personalization, and it would be a shame not to take advantage of it.

Not Enough Time & Resources

The final major challenge is one that anyone in the education sphere will be well acquainted with. Simply put, teachers are busy. As a SAM Labs educator once said, “Teachers don’t just have a full plate; they have a whole buffet table.” Whether we’re talking about time or other resources, educators usually don’t have enough of any of it.

This can present an especially thorny challenge with regards to assessments. Due to the inquiry-driven process of successful STEM assessments, they can be time-consuming. Doubly so once personalization is factored in. And if the educator is creating the lessons and assessments themselves? It’s daunting to consider.

As perhaps the most difficult challenge of assessing students using STEM and STEAM, this is a tricky problem to solve. Fortunately, there are ways to manage or minimize all of these challenges, and to smartly assess STEAM lessons to the benefit of our students.

Opportunities & Best Practices

So now that we know the challenges, what are the solutions?

Fortunately, we at SAM Labs have a staff of amazing former educators who are well-situated to answer that question. I’m talking about our Education team, consisting of Ashley Waring, Emily Deffenbaugh, Jennifer Byrom, and Mackenzie Meixner. With a combined 36 years of education experience specializing in K-8 classrooms and STEM/STEAM, they understand all of the challenges and struggles we’ve discussed.

They got together and recorded a webinar on the topic. It's titled STEM Assessments: Challenges, Opportunities, and Best Practices for 2021, and you can watch the recording by clicking on the image below:

That's right, signing up for the on-demand recordings will also unlock ready-made, research-driven K-8 STEAM rubrics for immediate use in your classroom! Anyone who signs up will have on-demand access to both the webinar and the downloadable rubrics, so please join us and see what our Education team has to say.