States, Districts Eye Chance to Craft Innovative Tests

Pilot under new K-12 law includes plenty of strings

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States and districts that want to "test-drive" the next generation of assessments will have the chance, thanks to one of the most buzzed-about pieces of the Every Student Succeeds Act.

But as the state officials who have crammed conference rooms to hear about ESSA's "Innovative Assessment" pilot are learning, trying out a new testing system in a handful of districts isn't for the faint of heart.

The law allows a small handful of states to accept local tests in lieu of the state exam, as long as the districts using them are trying out a system that will eventually go statewide.

And ESSA places a number of stringent conditions on the pilot, what the law's architects like to call "guardrails." These guardrails are aimed at making sure such new tests are of high quality, and that all kinds of students—including English-language learners and students in special education—have access to them.

Pointing the Way

Those conditions can challenge everything from a state's technical know-how to its approach to professional development—all without additional federal funding, at least for now. The U.S. Department of Education released its proposed regulations on the pilot program July 6, and is taking public comments for 60 days.

Experts say the pilot has the potential to help point the way to brand-new methods of measuring student learning, both for the states and districts that decide to give it a shot, and those that don't.

New Approaches

The U.S. Department of Education has proposed rules for states hoping to snare one of seven spots in its new Innovative Assessment pilot program, which would let them design their testing programs under the Every Student Succeeds Act. Among the highlights:

  • States that want in on the pilot don’t have to come up with a new testing system for every subject and every grade—they could try a more innovative format just for 3rd grade science tests, for instance.
  • The goal is one system eventually; the draft regulations make it clear that states are supposed to come up with one system that can eventually be scaled statewide.
  • Districts could try a handful of schools at first, rather than districtwide, or all at once.
  • The department would offer states four options to show that these new systems produce results comparable to those of their state’s test. Among them: giving the state test once in each grade where there is an innovative test, and giving the state test to a representative sample of students in certain grades.
  • States hoping to be selected for the pilot will have to lay out in detail what they intend to do, show their plans have support from the field, describe their budget, timeline, and evaluation plans, and how they intend to support teachers and students in using these new tests.

"We see this as a bridge," said Lillian Pace, the senior director of national policy at KnowledgeWorks, a nonprofit that works to better personalize learning for students. Pace has studied the pilot and its implications closely.

When lawmakers sat down to write ESSA, the field wasn't ready, she said, to "paint the picture of the next generation of assessments"—the kinds of tests that can give teachers a fuller, real-time picture of what their students know while still helping states and districts improve schools.

"While states may not be successful on the first try, we expect this to be a learning process for all," Pace said. "The goal is for participating states to build and refine a system over time that really transforms student learning."

What's more, the pilot also presents challenges for the Education Department, which will have to strike a balance between ensuring that the necessary quality and equity measures are in place, while giving states and districts room to experiment.

High Hurdles

The pilot was inspired, in large part, by New Hampshire, which got permission under the No Child Left Behind Act to begin experimenting with locally developed performance assessments in a handful of districts, with the idea of eventually taking the system statewide.

States and districts can try out performance tasks, like the Granite State is doing, or experiment with competency-based tests, which measure students' mastery of particular skills, or other new types of assessments.

Initially, the pilot participation will be limited to seven states, either working alone, or as a consortium. (In this case, a consortium can only have up to four members). After three years, the education secretary could open it up to more states—even all states.

States that want to participate in the pilot would have to clear some high hurdles. For instance, they'd have to make sure that their tests are valid and reliable for all students and for particular subgroups of students, including English-language learners and students in special education, two populations that aren't always easy to test.

And they'd have to check to make sure the results are comparable across districts, so that a particular score or outcome means the same thing from one district to the next. New Hampshire does this by having students take the state assessment in certain grades. In proposed regulations for the pilot, the department listed other options for clearing this bar.

By the end of the demonstration period, the districts would need to include a representative sample of students from around the state. For instance, a state with a large ELL population—such as California—would need to ensure that there were plenty of ELLs taking the tests in the trial districts. These new systems would have to be able to be scaled statewide by the end of the pilot period.

That last requirement might be the toughest, said Scott Marion, the executive director of the Center for Assessment, a nonprofit organization that is working with New Hampshire on its performance tasks.

"The thing that scares ... everybody is scaling statewide," he said. "They want you to have these guardrails, so it's not like any district could just waltz in [to the pilot]. You have to earn your way in."

Weighing the Challenges

But Donna Harris-Aikens, the ESSA implementation lead for the National Education Association, thinks those challenges are surmountable.

"I think it will be challenging to scale up statewide," she said. "But I don't think it will be impossible. There are states that are looking for a different way to demonstrate [student] progress. We are hoping and encouraging people to spend some time trying to figure out if they can do this."

One reality that has states that might otherwise be excited about jumping into the pilot worried: There's no federal money tied to it.

That gives Amy Fowler, the deputy secretary of education in Vermont, some pause—especially given all the tricky technical work the pilot requires.

"Many folks in my state are saying it would be so great if we could take our own test. It would be so great. But do we want to give up other things that money could be used for? Right now, we're feeling like it's not the most efficient way to go, even though it's attractive to educators."

Still, the program is generating plenty of interest. A big group of states—including Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, New Hampshire, Ohio, Tennessee, and Vermont, along with the District of Columbia and more—participated in a webinar that the Council of Chief State School Officers held earlier this year to talk about the pilot's potential.

Meanwhile, the CCSSO is advising states to examine the testing flexibility already in place in ESSA, to see if they can accomplish what they want on assessments without having to join the pilot.

Related Blog

Under the new law, states can try out computer-adaptive assessments or use a series of short-term or interim assessments instead of one big summative test—all without having to participate in the pilot.

Fowler, for instance, thinks Vermont may be able to do some of what it wants to do—such as possibly moving toward a science test that incorporates at least some performance elements—using that flexibility.

But Paul Leather, the deputy commissioner in New Hampshire, is urging his colleagues to give the innovative assessment pilot a go, despite the many challenges.

"It's really been very rewarding work," he said. "Schools and districts have gained a lot. It's a little higher bar than what we're used to … but I think everyone would say that it's been worth it."

Vol. 35, Issue 36, Pages 21, 26

Published in Print: July 20, 2016, as States, Districts Eyeing Chance to Craft Innovative Tests
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