Nearly 5 years into ESSA, where does student assessment stand?

  • At the end of 2015, President Barack Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) into law, building on and replacing the outdated No Child Left Behind Act. Both acts had, as a centerpiece, the need to close the “achievement gap” between poor and minority students and their peers. ESSA took measures a step further than its predecessor, requiring that every student, regardless of background or beginning ability, be taught to high academic standards in preparation for success in the world.

    Due to criticisms that standardized testing had changed learning in negative ways – that students were being tested too often, that educators were “teaching to the test,” and that administrators and districts placed too much emphasis on scores – ESSA allowed states and school districts to try new ways of assessment, as long as the new protocol dependably produced measurable scores or proficiency levels.

    A pilot program by the Department of Education (DoE) called the Innovative Assessment Demonstration Authority was created to support as many as seven state educational agencies over five years in their efforts to establish new assessment systems. As of December 2019, four states had been approved for the program: Louisiana, New Hampshire, Georgia, and North Carolina. The four programs, in brief:

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    • Louisiana’s pilot program combines English and social studies assessment, takes place in several smaller assessments during the year, and takes local control over which books the students are studying and being tested on (in standardized tests, students often are quizzed on text excerpts from books they may not have read).
    • New Hampshire is using local assessments as part of their program, designed in part by local teachers, and integrated into students’ daily work.
    • Georgia is testing two new assessment protocols. One is “adaptive interim assessments,” which involves fewer assessments given at more appropriate times; the other is “on-demand assessments,” intended to show data in real time.
    • North Carolina plans to use year-end assessments called “routes” that are customized for each student based on that student’s performance on two previous assessments during the school year. The “routes” are sets of questions designed to measure each student’s achievement.

    Results from the four states are years from completion; Louisiana and New Hampshire were approved in 2018, Georgia and North Carolina in 2019. Three other states, Hawaii, Kansas, and South Carolina, have expressed interest. But despite its slow adaptation, the program speaks to teachers’, parents’, and administrators’ concerns about how standardized testing – both the quantity and the quality – has been the sole determinant of student and school success or failure in the past.

    New Hampshire’s program was an inspiration for ESSA; the state received a DoE waiver in 2015 to replace some standardized tests with alternative forms of assessments.

    “We’re just creating fantastic assessments in classrooms that make sense for kids,” said Ellen Hume-Howard, the executive director of the New Hampshire Learning Initiative and the former curriculum director of the Sanborn Regional School District, one of four original PACE districts covered by the waiver, to the website EducationDive.  “We were out there proving it, collecting the data and giving some credibility to this approach.” The district gives standardized tests only once in elementary school, once in middle school and once in high school. Otherwise, they use assessment alternatives, which depend on “performance tasks” – essays, science experiments, math projects – to determine what level a child has reached.

    The ESSA changes have not been without growing pains; in April 2019, Education Week did a special report on progress in the first years of the program, noting the seeming lack of interest from many states. In a closeup of Louisiana’s program, a few experts noted concerns.

    Cynthia Posey, the legislative director for the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, said her union is waiting to see results. “There’s just a whole lot of unanswered questions about it,” she told Education Week.

    Sandy Kress, who worked on No Child Left Behind, cited issues that typically have thwarted previous attempts at innovative assessment.

    “First, can we see the innards of the test they propose?,” Kress asked. “Second, can we determine whether it is aligned in a solid way with the standards of the state?” he said. “The third aspect would be maybe the most complicated: Can it be used by the state in terms of measuring different levels of proficiency?”

    There are many aspects to assessment in the classroom, and teachers often do not have enough training in the issues surrounding it. “Engagement, Implementation, and Assessment,” a course offered by Dominican University of California’s online professional development program, the subject focuses on an inquiry-based classroom, promoting student engagement and using assessments as a learning tool. The engagement section directs your evaluation of the current level of engagement in your classroom; the implementation aspect will focus on introducing inquiry in your classroom by adapting a unit you currently teach. And the assessment aspect has you creating assessments that enhance learning while they evaluate progress. The course is self-paced and online, and represents two credits in continuing professional development.

    Photo credit: Smolaw11 via iStock