How Apex Learning Prepares Students for Success on High-Stakes Exams

February 13, 2017

Much like educational standards, high-stakes summative assessments are a critical component of education in the United States. For that reason, Apex Learning develops digital curriculum that prepares students for success on important high-stakes exams. 

Assessment Development in the United States

Assessment content is determined by state-adopted academic standards for measuring college and career readiness as well as progress toward that goal in math, English language arts, science, and social students, depending on the state. State educators review these standards and determine which can be assessed in a high-stakes environment. This environment is defined by how states choose to administer the exam: with paper and pencil, on a digital device or both, depending on the technology available in a district. 

In many instances, states do not assess student performance on every standard. Instead, tests are based on a subset of standards compiled into an assessment blueprint, which outside vendors and contractors use to build the exam. In addition to exam questions, vendors align assessment structure and delivery to standards, from using multiple choice or constructive response questions, to incorporating images, passages and data in the form of charts and graphs. Once an assessment is final, it is field-tested and studied prior to implementation. 

The end results of this process are high-stakes assessments that typically take the form of criterion-referenced tests, meaning they measure proficiency, not growth. The exam determines mastery of standards through right or wrong responses to assessment items, and every student is judged based on the same criteria to allow for comparison.

Assessment Shifts from NCLB to ESSA

With the passage of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), summative assessments became a required component of curriculum. Students were to be tested in math and English Language Arts (ELA) in grades 3-8 and once in high school. Students also were required to test in science at least once over the course of specific grade spans: 3-5, 6-9 and 10-12. As we transition into the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), we see that these assessment requirements in math, ELA and science still stand. That hasn’t changed. 

What has evolved are the stakes that surround student performance on high-stakes exams. Schools and districts are judged by test results, and under NCLB, there were strict penalties for falling below expectations. Though the consequences surrounding performance are not as severe with ESSA, testing is still a requirement; therefore, it continues to be of central importance to districts and schools, and districts are still accountable for achievement for all demographic subgroups of students. 

Aligning Digital Curriculum to High-Stakes Assessments 

All of this background on assessments is important, because it explains that a great deal of time and considerable thought is put into developing assessments that can measure student achievement in states across the nation. That also is why Apex Learning puts equal efforts into building digital curriculum that prepares students for success on high-stakes exams. 

  • Apex Learning Comprehensive Courses: Our Comprehensive Courses are designed for use in states that administer comprehensive end-of-grade-level exams as well as states that focus on end-of-course assessments. Accommodating both requires a rigorous study of standards that starts with using Depth of Knowledge (DOK) to analyze standards to ensure our digital curriculum provides students with the knowledge and skills they’ll need for content mastery on high-stakes exams. We also review state assessment blueprints to ensure we give special emphasis to the standards we know will be addressed in the exam. Through Understanding by Design, or Backward Design, we design target assessments and then build curriculum to meet them. 

  • Apex Learning Tutorials: This design strategy also is used in the development of Tutorials, which in addition to remediation and intervention are effective resources for test prep and to help students achieve at high levels on high-stakes assessments. A great tool for personalized learning, Tutorials also are a resource for small or whole group instruction. Tutorials can be used as a blended learning tool for test prep. For example, teachers may have data indicating that a number of students are struggling with a particular standard, and they can use that tutorial to teach those standards. Students then complete the assessment portion individually so that educators know where each student is at in their learning journey and how they can provide differentiated instruction to meet their needs.

    Tutorials focus student learning on each student’s area of deficiency for success on high-stakes exams. The adaptive assessment system built into Tutorials identifies prerequisite skill gaps that are preventing students from achieving success on grade-level exams and remediates those skill gaps to prepare students for the assessment — and on a platform that delivers the same rigor they will encounter on the assessment, but with built-in supports and scaffolds to help guide them to content mastery. Apex Learning even offers state-specific Tutorials that report against state standards to ensure teachers have the data they need to meet expectations. 


When utilizing Apex Learning as part of a digital curriculum program, you can not only prepare your students to achieve on high-stakes assessments, but also drive improved performance and academic success in your school or district. Request a demo to learn more. 


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