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Answer Your ESSA Questions: What’s Going on With Testing Audits?

By Alyson Klein — January 03, 2018 3 min read
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Welcome to the third installment of Answering Your ESSA Questions! If you have a question for us, please send it to or Or tweet at us @PoliticsK12.

Our next question, which deals with assessment, comes from an education advocate, who preferred to remain anonymous.

Here it is:

“I’ve been trying to get information on how teachers/schools work through districts to obtain funds from the state/U.S. DOE to conduct testing audits authorized under ESSA. Are you aware of any districts or states that have applied for funds? Additionally, are you aware of any states that have applied for grant funds under the ‘Innovative Demonstration Authority’ program?”

Let’s take the first part of that question first.

How do schools and districts get federal money to conduct audits of their tests?

Short answer: They can’t apply on their own, they have to wait and see if their state wants in.

Longer answer: ESSA encourages states and districts to use federal money—available by formula through the State Assessment Grant program, which currently gets $369 million—to do a close examination of the tests they require, with an eye towards jettisoning any assessments that are redundant or low-quality. That’s a new twist on the program, which is still primarily used to help states create high-quality tests aligned to their standards. States can choose to do these audits on their own, or the education secretary can (or must, depending on your interpretation of the law) make up to 20 percent of testing funds available for this purpose. According to the law, states that apply for those funds must get grants of up to $1.5 million. And they must share at least 20 percent of the money with districts. Districts though, don’t get to apply on their own for the funds. And neither do schools.

So where do these grants stand? The Obama administration had pitched setting aside just 5 percent of the $369 million in assessment grant’s funding to help states conduct testing audits. (Check out page C-4 of this budget request from fiscal year 2018 for more.) It asked for Congress’ permission to make those grants competitive. But that request wasn’t approved. The Trump administration, by contrast, does not appear to want to reserve testing funds specifically for audits. (Check out page C-2 for their budget request on this issue.)

Importantly, states and districts don’t need a special pot of federal funding to conduct audits. That’s something they can already do, under the law. So why the grant program? It could be a signal that the audits were important to Obama and and congressional Democrats at the time ESSA was written.

On the Innovative Assessment Pilot

How many states have applied?

Short answer: None. The department literally just announced that it will start accepting applications on April 2.

Longer answer: ESSA gives the department permission to allow states to try out new types of tests in a handful of districts, with the goal of eventually taking them statewide. Up to seven states can be part of this initial pilot. Then, eventually, the feds can let everyone try it. But there are some serious guardrails in the law that make participating tricky. So at this point, it’s unlikely a ton of states will decide to be part of the initial pilot. (Hawaii and New York, though, said in their ESSA applications that they want to take part.)

Importantly, though, no money is attached to the pilot, so there are no corresponding grants to apply for.

Big shout-out to Lillian Pace, the senior director of national policy at KnowledgeWorks; Scott Marion, the executive director of the Center for Assessment; and Anne Hyslop, a former Obama administration official who is now an independent consultant, for their help in answering this question.

Want more? Check out our answers on how tests figure it school grades under ESSA, and how the law’s block grant will work.

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