In 2015, President Barack Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), replacing the Bush-era No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act that had been in effect since 2002. One of the main shifts from NCLB to ESSA is an effort to provide states with more decision-making power regarding curriculum, instruction and assessments.
“The overarching goal behind the changes was to get the federal government out of the states’ business, giving the states more flexibility,” explains Lisa Andrejko, education advisor for PeopleAdmin and a former school superintendent.
ESSA has presented states with the opportunity to adapt how they evaluate student progress throughout the year and in traditional end-of-year assessments. Here are a few of the big-picture ideas influencing many states as they approach assessment design and implementation.
Across the board, states are rethinking one-size-fits-all standardized assessments and instead considering individual student progress.
“That is a very positive move away from NCLB and Race to the Top,” says Andrejko. “There’s definitely a move now for more flexibility, including curriculum-based assessments.”
But it’s also more difficult — and time-consuming — for states to create personalized, student-centered assessments. Like the SAT and ACT for college admissions, standardized K-12 grade-based assessments are easy to use to describe student achievement, yet they don’t give a complete picture of how a student is faring.
Technology is playing an important role in solving this dilemma. Computer adaptive assessments, which automatically adjust the questions based on student answers, allow teachers to quickly assess a student’s level of understanding and provide instant feedback to help the learning process.
“As more schools adopt technology, they need to keep the goal of using assessments to guide learning,” Andrejko says. “Technology can manage local student assessment data for use in continuous improvement.”
Several states are starting to include subjects beyond the traditional math and reading in their K-12 assessments. All 50 states include science in their summative testing at least twice prior to high school, and some are starting to incorporate social studies, government or economics, as well.
“There’s a push for more conversation about being citizens in a democracy, and evaluating what that means for assessing social studies and history,” says Chris Minnich, CEO of NWEA, a not-for-profit organization that creates research-based assessments.
Some states are also moving toward assessing multiple subjects at once, using curricular excerpts to assess reading and the subject area.
“Louisiana just had an innovative assessment approved that will test social studies and reading together,” says Minnich. “They’re thinking about using some curricular documents and testing against those. If you think about it, it’s really unfair to a student to ask them to come into a test without the background knowledge to engage with the text.”
Leveraging interim assessments
In pursuit of a student-centered approach, many states are prioritizing interim assessments over traditional end-of-year summative tests.
“There’s a big push for using data you’ve already gathered in the cumulative process,” says Minnich. “Right now when we give a test, we assume we know nothing about the student, when in reality, every teacher understands that students’ knowledge builds throughout the year. In the future, I believe there will be more point-in-time assessments instead of a big end-of-year test.”
Nebraska is shifting its approach to practice this idea. The state introduced the Nebraska Student Centered Assessment System (NSCAS) last year, an innovative, computer adaptive assessment.
“As a state we asked, how do we really make assessment useful at a classroom level?” says Nebraska Commissioner of Education Matthew Blomstedt. “We saw the value of intrinsic motivation, of students interacting with their own data and seeing their growth. We wanted an assessment system that reflects that.”
Moving forward, Blomstedt hopes to use interim assessments to tailor summative testing based on individual student achievement. “We can save time by not asking students questions they’ve already shown they can answer, making the testing process more efficient,” he says. “That efficiency is truly a value add to the school experience, freeing up time for them to engage in learning instead of just trying to measure learning.”
Testing to inform instruction
If the purpose of testing is to inform instruction, it makes sense for states to re-evaluate the end-of-year summative assessment.
“Standardized testing takes time away from instruction and the data provided usually arrives too late for instructional adjustments,” Andrejko says. “Good teachers constantly assess students formally and informally to guide instruction. I believe it’s very difficult to accurately test content subjects in a mass testing setting because the best assessments require students to apply what they have leaned, not just repeat back memorized facts.”
Minnich believes the end-of-year testing model will eventually disappear.
“Nowhere else in the world do we wait till the end of the year and then test students, as if we don’t know how they’re doing during the year,” he says. “In the long term, I think we’ll be shifting toward evaluating student growth using drawn-out activities and projects, and allowing them to take formal assessments when they are ready, no matter when that is during the year.”