Despite ESSA flexibility, most districts still lack choice on high school assessments
- Though the Every Student Succeeds Act still requires annual testing as a federal requirement, it allows states the option to cut down on the number of required assessments by giving school districts the option of giving nationally recognized college entrance exams instead of state assessments.
- So far, only two states — North Dakota and Oklahoma — have plans in place that give school districts this option, though a few others are considering the move.
- Though offering the choice of assessments may mean less testing for students, it requires more work for state education officials and creates challenges in terms of comparing data across the state.
The issue of testing has long been a contentious topic in the field of education. John Kline, one of the architects of the ESSA, commented, “During the eight long years our team spent working to pass this bill, no topic was more hotly debated than that of annual testing.” Testing involves a lot of legal aspects and complex, statistical questions: Is the data comparable? Is the testing equitable? Are there accommodations for special needs students? Will the number of assessments overwhelm students and steal valuable classroom time? How will the testing data be used? As states now have more flexibility in their choices, they are also having to grapple more with these issues than ever before.
At the high school level, ESSA allows states to give school districts to the option to choose assessments, whether a national assessment like the ACT or SAT or a state option. The state of Florida just spent more than $420,000 studying the feasibility of such a choice and concluded that flexibility and comparability could not coexist. The authors of the report said they had “serious doubts on the interchangeability of the three tests” and they felt it was “not fair to compare schools that use the state tests in their accountability system to those that use the alternate tests.” Clearly, flexibility has its pros and cons.
However, the state did not examine the issue of using only the ACT or SAT as the high school assessment and abandoning the state exam. The new ESSA regulations seem to allow for this option and it is one worth considering. Using a national assessment would allow for the desired comparability of data, not just statewide, but nationwide. Students who would not normally be able to afford a college entrance exam would be able to take it free, improving college access for low-income students. The test would also be a better measure of how well a student is prepared for higher education, rather than how well they have learned state standards. If students were also offered (or required) to take the ACT WorkKeys, they would also have a measure of career preparedness. These issues are worth considering as well.