Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

The Next Generation of State Assessment and Accountability

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

The Next Generation of State Assessment and Accountability

Article excerpt

The Every Student Succeeds Act enables states and districts to seize the opportunity to develop assessments that go beyond paper-and-pencil bubble sheets. What's involved in stepping up to that challenge?

Assessment has long had a prominent--and controversial --role in American education, and that's never been more true than today. But a new federal law gives states and districts an opportunity to move assessment forward.

Since the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act 15 years ago, state tests have played an outsized role in schools. The goal of the law was to create incentives for educators to focus on student achievement, but the law defined tests as the sole measure of outcomes. As a result, schools faced enormous pressures to raise test scores, which shaped classroom practice as teachers focused on the material in the tests and spent time on test preparation activities.

The heavy emphasis on end-of-year summative tests sparked a backlash. In recent years teachers have raised strong objections to using tests to evaluate teaching practice. Numerous parents in states like New York and Colorado "opted" their children out of taking certain standardized tests. Parents and educators alike decried "over-testing," concerned that tests and test preparation were taking up too much classroom time. The chorus grew so loud that the U.S. Department of Education in 2015 proposed a cap--2% of instructional time--on testing and encouraged states and districts to review their testing programs with an eye toward reducing test requirements.

The Every Student Success Act (ESSA), the successor to NCLB enacted in December 2015, contains several provisions that could address concerns about testing. The law allows states to use measures in addition to tests in school accountability systems, which could reduce pressure on schools to raise test scores at the expense of other actions that could improve learning.

Perhaps more importantly, the law authorizes a pilot program that would allow up to seven states to develop innovative assessment and accountability systems that could incorporate new measures of student performance. These new measures could support student learning rather than detract from it, as critics charge current state tests do.

Innovations in assessment

"New" assessments are not really new. States and districts have experimented with alternatives to traditional standardized tests for decades, with mixed results.

Perhaps the most active period for assessment innovation was in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when a number of states put in place new performance-based assessments and other models. These assessments were aimed at tapping a broader range of student abilities than conventional tests and at creating incentives for teachers to focus on abilities like critical thinking and problem solving.

For example, Vermont and Kentucky introduced portfolios to assess students on the basis of classwork over time; Maryland, Wyoming, and Connecticut developed tests that asked students to engage in complex projects; and a number of states added open-ended items and extended writing prompts to their assessments.

While these assessments produced some improvements in student learning, they also encountered significant challenges. Specifically, many assessment systems were challenged on technical quality issues; some were not feasible or affordable on a large scale, and some faced political opposition from critics who considered them too subjective or not rigorous enough. In the face of these challenges and NCLB requirements that mandated tests at every grade level --from grade 3 through 8--states dropped these alternatives and reverted to more conventional tests.

In recent years, amid growing concern about the limitations of these tests, there has been a renewed interest in alternatives. The two state consortia that developed assessments designed to measure progress against the Common Core State Standards--the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium--have put some innovative features in assessments. …

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