Hamilton & The Future of Assessment

Your Obedient Servant, C. DePascale

roughly to the beat of Alexander Hamilton –
(with sincere apologies to Lin-Manuel Miranda and the entire rap community)

How could three simple, questions, multiple-choice
And some False-True, dropped in the middle of the Hamilton app
On my iPhone, by all accounts just trivia
Invalid, reveal to me the future of assessment? 

The through-course assessment without assessment
Gets you much farther without testing being harder
By being a lot smarter, by students being self-starters
By springtime, you’ll know exactly what they’ve mastered.

 You think this sounds insane, man, that thing is just a game.
It’s candy for your brain, no alignment to our claims
But there’s a million things we haven’t done
And we just can’t wait. We just can’t wait.

After answering the daily trivia questions on the Hamilton app off and on for the past two years I finally reached the 1,000-star milestone. If you’re not familiar with the app, here are the basics:

  • Three questions per day
  • One point/star awarded for each correct answer
  • Extra stars for answering all three questions correctly

The bottom line is that you have to make a commitment and answer a lot of questions correctly over an extended period of time to reach 1,000 stars.


Look around, look around

As I reflected and pondered the significance of this major life milestone I arrived at two conclusions:

  • I know a lot, but not too much, about the musical Hamilton; and wait for it …
  • This trivia game is a perfect example of, or at least a metaphor for, what we want out of assessment and instruction.

Based on the questions I have answered correctly and perhaps more importantly, those that I did not, I can make a solid summative, self-appraisal of my knowledge of two constructs: Hamilton the Musical and US History during the Revolutionary War period – the two major themes addressed by the game.  The developers of the app or a teacher could make a similar judgment. Focusing on the musical:

  • I am quite proficient in areas related to the music or performance of the musical itself. Seeing the show three times and listening to the CD countless times has paid off.
  • I am still somewhat proficient, but less so, in areas related to the creative and production team and the lives and careers of the original Broadway cast.
  • I am not proficient in other productions of the show and the details of ancillary material such as the Hamilton Mixtape and Hamildrops, although I am familiar with both.

This information would allow someone to make fairly accurate inferences about the depth of my obsession with Hamilton.  There is a logical underlying progression to the questions I am able to answer correctly in the trivia game that allows one to accurately place me along a Hamilfan or Hamfam scale.

True, there may be outliers who are totally obsessed with the Mixtape and know next to nothing about the show; there will always be outliers. Similarly, there may be a class of fourth-graders somewhere who have been taught the low-level skill of determining the first derivative of y = 3x2, but we make the assumption that most people who can answer questions about first derivatives have successfully advanced through a sequence of mathematics courses to arrive at Calculus I.

We build learning progressions and assessments based on information that maximizes our ability to make accurate judgments and instructional decisions, but we don’t rely solely on a test to make summative judgments about student performance.

Thinking Past Tomorrow

Now before you challenge me to a duel, no I am not suggesting that the future of assessment is low-level multiple-choice, true-false, complete-this-lyric questions.

I am suggesting that future of assessment is the continuous collection of information along a well-defined learning progression using both formal and informal methods. Information collected so that a teacher or student will have sufficient information at a given point in time to be able to evaluate the evidence in front of her and make an appropriate formative or summative judgment.

I am suggesting a shift in mindset from assessment as a separate event to assessment as an integral part of the teaching and learning process.  We have had limited success in conveying that idea with respect to formative assessment, but it applies much more broadly. As the poet Pellegrino taught us, it’s all about knowing what students know.  Traditional end-of-year large-scale assessments as we know them in K-12 education should be, at their best, a proxy for and confirmation of the year-long collection of evidence compiled by teachers and students.

Yes, this brave new world of assessment is wide enough for both a greater focus on continuous assessment based on well-defined learning progressions and psychometrics, IRT, adaptive testing, and all of the technical tools that we have come to love.  We have to accept and embrace the idea, however, that it’s time for our assessment world to be turned upside down.

What comes next?

Well, for me, it’s time to take a break, sit for a moment alone in the shade, lament the cancelled Hamilton performances at the Kennedy Center this summer, and wait patiently for #Hamilfilm to drop on Disney+ on July 3rd.

As I have written previously, however, I am certain that 30 years from now today’s graduate students, young faculty, and freshly minted psychometricians will be retelling the story of how they seized this moment in time and blew us all away by not giving up their shot to improve assessment and education.

Published by Charlie DePascale

Charlie DePascale is an educational consultant specializing in the area of large-scale educational assessment. When absolutely necessary, he is a psychometrician. The ideas expressed in these posts are his (at least at the time they were written), and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations with which he is affiliated personally or professionally..

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