Why we should hand off student assessment to AI and NFTs

Janie Dam, JD, EdD

The first recorded occurrence of standardized testing can be found in Chinese civil servant selection, as early as 2200 B.C. Candidates for government jobs were required to demonstrate proficiency in archery. Applicants were given three arrows to shoot at a human-sized and shaped object while riding on horseback. If all three arrows hit the target, a perfect score was earned; if two of them reached the target, the performance was graded as good; and if only one arrow met the target, it was a pass. 

For generations of Americans, standardized testing was not nearly as gruesome but it could be as arduous. And it arrived in two forms: fill-in-the-bubble tests to gauge student performance or the hours-long SAT and ACT college admissions exams. (With acceptance to college riding on the results, these perhaps were sometimes just as gruesome.)

Over the past few years, the fundamental flaws to the SAT and ACT have become clear – gender, wealth, and racial biases and the subversion of the results through expensive prep courses, among them – and many colleges and universities, including the University of California, are jettisoning these tests as admission requirements. The inability to administer the tests during the COVID pandemic fast-tracked a change that was clearly coming and in most cases clearly needed.

More troublesome is what lies ahead for student standardized tests, which play a critical function in the collection of objective data needed for tracking state and national progress toward a better-educated workforce. Should they be eliminated as well? If not, how might they be changed and improved? 

With projections of a shortage in America of millions of highly educated and skilled workers looming in the coming decade and with global economic competition likely to continue its steady rise, it would be foolish to deprive ourselves of a consistent means to assess our education system and how it is serving students – and by extension us all. 

The answer is an improved version of the California Smarter Balanced test as a single new assessment better designed to measure and predict students’ future career successes, whether via college attendance or vocational training. (Some of the better elements of the SAT and ACT even could be incorporated.) Streamlining and realigning this test could help eliminate the unhealthy overtesting of students, and substantially save costs for them, their families, and their schools. Rapid advancements in artificial intelligence machine learning and blockchain ecosystems present enormous potential to establish these innovations and secure differentiated student assessment. Imagine 21st Century technologies producing a more authentic and complete skills-set profile for every student throughout their time in school. Such tests could measure skills more substantially and directly tie to potential future careers. New school-based assessments could forecast students’ soft skills, motivation, productivity level, and work ethic. 

Before you scoff, think about this: If TikTok can predict which video you will like the most, similar technology can personalize student testing to yield more real-world information. Just as NFTs (non-fungible tokens) can serve to authenticate unique assets such as artwork or even an autographed tweet, they can do the same for student work product and assessment results.

Whether it is shooting arrows on horseback or taking a high school exit or college entry exam, the goal is the same: demonstration of the skill level needed to meet a proficiency target. The difference is that the riding-shooting test was directly aligned to the job skills involved, whereas school-based assessments tend to be more academically oriented, not real-world and job-related. We now have the tools to change this.

And as a last, final bonus, doing so would leave testing to our tireless AI machines - and allow our teachers more time and energy to creatively teach.


About the Author: Janie Dam has been a professional educator since 2000. She is a math teacher and the Testing and Data Coordinator at Granada Hills Charter in Los Angeles, CA. She holds a Bachelor of Science (BS) in Mathematical Sciences from Southern Methodist University, and as a President’s Scholar studied at University College at Oxford. She received her Juris Doctorate (JD) from the University of Texas School of Law, and her Education Doctorate (EdD) in Educational Leadership and Management from Alliant International University, in which she published her dissertation on standardized tests as predictors of college persistence in late November 2019. By May 2020, five months later, the University of California regents unanimously voted to suspend SAT and ACT testing requirements through 2024 and eliminate them for California students by 2025.