Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Design Principles for New Systems of Assessment: Rather Than Being Led by National Testing Mandates, State and Local Leaders Should Design Balanced Assessment Systems Guided by Coherence, Research on Learning, and Attention to Equity

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Design Principles for New Systems of Assessment: Rather Than Being Led by National Testing Mandates, State and Local Leaders Should Design Balanced Assessment Systems Guided by Coherence, Research on Learning, and Attention to Equity

Article excerpt

When Congress passed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) in December 2015, it carried forward many of the same testing requirements that existed under No Child Left Behind (NCLB). But at the same time, it softened the consequences, taking away the federal government's power to determine what will happen to schools that fail to meet specific testing goals. From now on, states and districts can decide for themselves what achievement targets to set, and they can choose to focus on needed supports instead of sanctions for their lowest-performing schools.

Free from strict Adequate Yearly Progress accounting, many state and district education leaders are exploring new ways to collect information about student learning as well as new ways to use that information. Where NCLB mandated testing strictly for summative purposes (i.e., to judge how well students, teachers, and schools have performed), ESSA permits and even provides some funding to encourage states to develop balanced assessment systems. Such systems encompass not just summative tests but also local, formative assessments, which could include curriculum-embedded assessments designed to provide teachers with insights about instructional supports that are needed.

The question is: What guiding principles would help ensure the quality of these new, balanced assessment systems? Drawing on lessons learned over three decades of research and reform, we argue that state and local leaders should take the lead in designing new assessments guided by two core principles: First, make assessments coherent, integrating them with rich curriculum and effective instruction; second, ground this integration of curriculum, instruction, and embedded assessments in equity-focused research on learning.

Building coherent assessment systems

The idea of building a coherent system of assessments "from classroom to state" was first advanced in a National Research Council committee report, Knowing What Students Know (Pellegrino, Chudowsky, & Glaser, 2001, p. 9), which synthesized findings from contemporary research on both learning and educational measurement. Whether an assessment is meant to be used in a classroom or for state accountability, it should assess what is truly valuable for students to learn, such as core ideas and key skills from the various content areas (p. 248). By contrast, many classroom worksheets and multiple-choice tests that mimic state exams have reflected a negative kind of coherence, requiring students to answer superficial questions or recall simple facts.

Further, the report explained that assessments should be coherent not only vertically (i.e., the same standards and learning goals drive assessments at both the classroom and state accountability levels) but also horizontally. Horizontal coherence, at each level of the system, refers to the conceptual integration of assessments with a shared model of learning. At the state level, this means that accountability assessments must fully embody learning goals envisioned by standards. At the district level, assessments must be coherent with standards, curricula, and professional development. And at the classroom level, horizontal coherence requires that assessments be so thoroughly integrated with curriculum and instruction that the insights they provide can immediately be put to use. Thus, classroom formative assessments must be built on much more fine-grained models of learning than state-level tests. In order to provide the kinds of specific feedback and instructional supports that students need at intermediate stages of development, teachers need research-based tools that are attuned to the very specific ways in which student understanding develops in each academic domain.

For example, let's say that a state or district standard specifies that students must learn how to make and defend reasoned arguments about informational texts. And let's say that school system leaders introduce assessments that are designed to help teachers gauge the kinds of support their students need in order to reach this standard. …

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