Gabrielle Cayton-Hodges, ETS

Learning progressions (LPs; which are similar to learning trajectories) have been defined in many ways over decades of cognitive research and in different subject areas. At ETS, through the Cognitively-Based Assessment of, for, and as Learning, (CBAL™) we developed a singular definition to be used across content areas: “a description of qualitative change in a student’s level of sophistication for a key concept, process, strategy, practice, or habit of mind. Change in student standing on such a progression may be due to a variety of factors, including maturation and instruction. Each progression is presumed to be modal—i.e., to hold for most, but not all, students. Finally, it is provisional, subject to empirical verification and theoretical challenge” (ETS, 2012).

The development and documentation of LPs can be useful in the creation of proper diagnostic tools for both formative and summative assessment. By developing research-based LPs that are intended for use in assessment development and developing an assessment around them, the assessment system can provide teachers with information regarding the location of their students on the progression and from that derive information needed to move the students forward.

However, this is not always a simple and straight-forward task. Since LPs often articulate not just what students can do, but also what students understand as well as what misconceptions they may have, a single item, even with a solution or explanation, may only give us a small part of the story.

Scenario-Based Tasks (SBTs) lead students through a larger, often real-world context, in which the students are able to apply various aspects of subject matter knowledge towards solving the problem. SBTs and Learning Progressions fit nicely hand-in-hand as students demonstrate knowledge in context, and scaffolding can be applied as needed to determine the level at which a student can perform both with and without assistance. In mathematics, for example, since both SBTs and LPs are designed for one particular content area, they can be tailored to highlight a precise area of mathematics and even specific LP levels while filling in the other mathematical content knowledge needed for the particular problem. The SBT can also provide some amount of “branching” whereby students who do not need the scaffolding move on to show what they can do independently while others who may have been left floundering with an open-ended problem can be provided the results of some parts of the problem where they may be stumbling, allowing them to advance to other aspects of the problem that they may be able to solve without difficulty.

While it is true that there are multiple approaches to assessment along a Learning Progression, and SBTs alone may not provide all of the information we need, the incorporation of SBTs into summative or formative assessment can certainly help us to fill some inevitable gaps.

For more information on the design and development of assessments that incorporate SBTs, see Oranje, A., Keehner, M., Persky, H., Cayton‐Hodges, G., & Feng, G. (2016).



Educational Testing Service. (2012). Outline of provisional learning progressions. Retrieved from the The CBAL English language arts (ELA) compentency model and provisional learning progressions web site:

Oranje, A., Keehner, M., Persky, H., Cayton‐Hodges, G., & Feng, G. (2016). Educational Survey Assessments. In A. Rupp & Leighton, J. (Eds.), The Wiley Handbook of Cognition and Assessment: Frameworks, Methodologies, and Applications (pp. 427-445). Wiley-Blackwell.