Researchers awarded $1.7M NSF grant to study learning assessments in schools

Abington education faculty

Rachael Erikson Brown is an associate professor of education at Penn State Abington.

Credit: Pam Brobst

ABINGTON, Pa. — Rachael Erikson Brown, associate professor of education at Penn State Abington, is the co-principal investigator (PI) on a $1.7 million grant from the National Science Foundation for research that could fundamentally change learning assessments in schools nationwide. 

The funding for the Rational Numbers Playground: Applying and Refining a Model for Dynamic, Discussion-Based Professional Development for Fractions, Ratios, and Proportions grant begins Aug. 1 and runs through 2026.  

The project will engage middle school math teachers in exploring the effectiveness of two different professional development approaches featuring web-based tools to test and experiment with their mathematical ideas on fractions and proportions and how to teach them.  

According to Brown, the work has two research focuses: 

  • Topic modeling, an emerging assessment approach, will allow the researchers to identify patterns in the language teachers use to determine the kinds of understandings evolving from the professional development. If more tools like topic models can come about that can easily measure learning using natural language, it could fundamentally change the assessment culture in schools, as large-scale multiple-choice tests could be replaced by learning activities in the classroom.  

  • The second is the design of a professional development approach that can be used for a wide range of math topics. The approach focuses on deepening teachers’ understanding of the mathematics they teach, as well as on connecting that opportunity to their teaching. 

“If topic modeling works in this setting, assessment of not only teacher knowledge but also of student knowledge could fundamentally change. In addition, we are exploring a model for designing professional development for teachers that could help improve that experience across the nation,” said Brown, who chairs the elementary and early childhood education degree program at Penn State Abington. 

Brown’s co-PIs on the grant are Chandra Orrill, professor of STEM education and teacher development at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, and Al Cohen, professor emeritus in the department of educational psychology at the University of Georgia. 

“I’m thrilled to be working with both Chandra and Al again. My dissertation research was from a previous National Science Foundation-funded research grant where they both served as co-PIs,” Brown said. 

In years two through four of the grant, a paid undergraduate research assistant from Abington will join the team to help with data collection, analysis and dissemination of findings. The student will learn important research skills by working with the multidisciplinary team. 

About Penn State Abington 

Penn State Abington provides an affordable, accessible and high-impact education resulting in the success of a diverse student body. It is committed to student success through innovative approaches to 21st-century public higher education within a world-class research university. With more than 3,000 students, Penn State Abington is a residential campus that offers baccalaureate degrees in 23 majors, undergraduate research, the Schreyer honors program, NCAA Division III athletics and more.