A new, open source student assessment focused on developing core skills rather than passing or failing aims to transform the idea of student readiness.

An innovative new student assessment has been developed in order to better measure student readiness and success for college.

Created by Excelsior College, the Diagnostic Assessment and Achievement of College Skills, or DAACS, is aimed at offering a different look at readiness beyond high school grades and standardized tests like the SAT or ACT, which can be poor indicators of future college success, especially when it comes to underserved populations. [Read: “What do test-optional admissions really look like?“]

The new open-source assessment tool was created using a 2.9 million dollar First in the World federal grant offered to just 17 institutions from the U.S. Department of Education, and stems from the rise of trust in self-reported assessments on predictors like GRIT and mindset.

“Did students not score well [on a major test like the SAT or ACT] because they didn’t test well, just needed a brief refresher, had test anxiety, or for any other reason?” asked Dr. Jason Bryer, executive director & principal investigator of DAACS at Excelsior. “We don’t know. Often, how someone does is based on if they had a good breakfast or not. Taking that out of the equation and measuring things like effort and desire are why we feel DAACS is better. We should give a formative assessment that shows where you are and what you need to do in order to get where you want to be.”

(Next page: How the DAACS student assessment works)

Essentially, the new DAACS assessment first measures academic and nonacademic skills to identify at-risk students. Then, it refers to students the appropriate resources needed for improvement and success so that they can best stay the course and pursue their desired outcomes right away. As a result, the data is anticipated to substantially increase the efficacy of Excelsior’s predictive models to help any struggling students, as well as create the opportunity for more in-depth advising.

The DAACS is completed entirely online, and students receive their results as soon as they complete each of the four main modules: college skills, math, reading and writing. The assessment can also be taken as many times as a student desires, and there are plans to add more videos and interactive components to the assessment over time.

Understanding the Emphasis on 4 Modules

College skills are basically self-report questions where users answer questions about themselves and their habits within a range of options from strongly agree to strongly disagree. By asking about academic self-regulation, motivation, self-efficacy, metacognition, GRIT and mindset, the data can be used to get a general feel for the learner and give them the help that is best suited to their strengths when needed, says the College.

Reading and mathematics are both multiple choice sections using questions from past New York state exams. These are free, low-stakes assessments that spend more time on feedback and helping students understand key concepts than on actual testing. This format also reduces any incentives for cheating, as the DAACS has no effect on placement and is not designed to be about passing or failing.

The writing section is graded automatically by a machine, though it can also be graded by a human reader as requested. This section is simply a starting point to get a feel for a student’s writing habits, which will then be addressed more in-depth with an expert or coach at their next advising meeting.

(Next page: How students interact with DAACS; plans for the future)

Students Have Sense of Assessment Ownership

Students are able to track their progress on the DAACS through a dashboard that gives them an overall indicator of how they’re doing, as well as the ability to explore specific aspects of each model through open educational resources (OERs). For example, a student wanting to improve in mathematics can focus entirely on algebra if that is a singular weak point that they want to work on.

“DAACS is really focused on the early days of a student’s college career,” said Dr. Bryer. “Getting through that first course really helps students be successful and complete their degree. Students take DAACS, we have their data, and can start tracking them throughout their experience. Then we can develop statistical models to see which students are the most likely to be successful, and see who’s at a high or low risk or dropping out; and for those at a high risk, we can target them for intervention.”

Moving Forward through Open Source

The current plan is to pilot the assessment at Excelsior and Western Governors University (WGU) in the 2017 winter semester, where a randomized half of the students use DAACS and the other half don’t, in order to track and compare their progress during the first few months, as well as all the way to degree completion.

The goal is to expand and make DAACS available to all interested institutions for the full 2017-2018 academic year.

“I would like to see it replace entrance exams and grow,” said Dr. Bryer. “It’s an open source tool with OERs and software built on an open source server. It will be available on Github so that institutions can use it and expand it with their own contributions, hopefully. Maybe we can even expand to other modules like life sciences for students on a path like nursing.”

“It’s not optional, but the biggest challenge is to explain the value of DAACS to students and ensuring they take it seriously, since it doesn’t have an impact on their grades,” continued Dr. Bryer. “The amount of data we’re going to collect can really help us understand more factors that make a student successful or not. I really hope students own this info in order to learn about themselves and act upon it by working on closing gaps in their core skills.

About the Author:

Ronald Bethke


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