Overhauling Student Assessments: A View From the Pilot's Seat

Louisiana and New Hampshire have stepped up for ESSA's experiment in crafting new student assessments

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Can a new assessment for students help schools create a more "literate citizenry"?

By trying to align tests more closely with curriculum and standards—while developing an assessment format that covers both English/language arts and social studies—Louisiana officials are working to develop a system they say is used successfully in other countries. And they say there's no reason it can't work here.

Louisiana, along with New Hampshire, is one of two states so far to win federal approval to try out new tests that differ from the traditional end-of-year summative exams that became the norm after the No Child Left Behind Act's passage nearly two decades ago and continue into the Every Student Succeeds Act era.

Through ESSA's Innovative Assessment Demonstration Authority, up to seven states can establish, operate, and evaluate a new testing system that they plan to eventually take statewide. Crucially, these pilot exams must gauge students' progress to the same standards as the state tests already in use, and they must be aligned with state standards.

So far, the federal pilot program hasn't attracted much interest: In the second round of the application period with the U.S. Department of Education near the end of last year, only Georgia and North Carolina applied, although Hawaii, Kansas, and South Carolina previously expressed interest. The lack of interest is likely because there's no additional federal money for the pilot, as well as technical challenges for states to overcome.

The Louisiana pilot relies on the state's model curriculum, which roughly 80 percent of districts in Louisiana use. But more broadly, said Jessica Baghian, an assistant superintendent in the Louisiana education department, the pilot is a step toward the state's goal of aligning high-quality standards, curriculum, and tests, while also attempting to ensure that a wider group of students is exposed to important background and topical knowledge in the classroom.

"We think it's ultimately an equity play," Baghian said.

Hot and Warm Reads

In 2015, New Hampshire won federal approval to conduct a pilot of competency-based exams in a few districts—competency-based learning allows students to demonstrate proficiency in a topic without a prerequisite amount of seat time. The state used the assessment pilot application to continue this program—with some changes—which is called the Performance Assessment of Competency Education.

By contrast, Louisiana is trying out its own approach for the first time this school year. The pilot is being conducted with the participation of 2,400 students in the 7th grade, with the goal of making it operational for 7,400 students in grades 6-8 in the 2019-20 school year in districts that are using the state's model curriculum and choose to participate. (This year, the pilot is under way in four districts, including one charter school district.)

Essentially, the assessment Louisiana is piloting will consist of three sections, with each building upon the previous one.

The first will include texts students have already had exposure to in class, called "hot reads" by the state, in order to grasp their understanding of material at the core of the state's model curriculum. The state calls this material "anchor" texts.

The second will ask students to deal with "warm reads," which consist of reading material related to the "hot reads." On this portion of the pilot exam, students will be asked to demonstrate their knowledge of things like setting and the author's strategy.

Finally, the third section will require students to write an essay based on both the "hot reads" and "warm reads."

'Literate Citizenry'

The description of the pilot proposal, titled, "Literate Citizenry in Public Schools: A New Vision for Assessment in Louisiana," says that "a focus on discrete reading skills dominates" English classrooms. But students with relatively large amounts of background knowledge, the state pointed out, tend to read at higher levels.

"Adults comprehend and evaluate news articles, workplace documents, novels, web pages, and social-media posts not just because they know what individual words mean but because they know something about the topic each text contains," the state wrote in its proposal.

Baghian said traditional standardized tests often assume a certain level of background knowledge—such as whether students know about or have seen Leonardo's "Mona Lisa," for example—but in a way that often prioritizes relatively privileged life experiences rather than what students have actually dealt with in class.

She said the approach Louisiana is taking in the pilot is more focused on students' classroom instruction and experiences, relies on teachers to build the items, and has generated positive feedback from students so far.

"The test felt like it was a culmination of what they'd done in class, more so than the tests they're used to taking," Baghian said. The next round of the pilot will take place in May, after an initial round at the start of this year.

Scott Marion, the executive director of the Center for Assessment who has worked with Louisiana on the pilot, said, "The lack of connection between actual curriculum and assessments is a unique feature of educational systems" in the United States. (The center works on testing and accountability with states and districts.)

Programs such as the International Baccalaureate, Marion said, rely on the same model Louisiana's pilot ultimately does.

"It's always that trade-off of flexibility and standardization," Marion said. "How do we make things comparable but flexible?"

Others involved in studying, creating, and evaluating new forms of assessment say that efforts in Louisiana and New Hampshire could eventually affect what happens in federal policy down the road. The conversations started by the pilot, even among the vast majority of states that haven't indicated an interest in the pilot itself so far, could lead to dramatic changes across the country in testing, said Lillian Pace, the vice president of policy and advocacy at KnowledgeWorks, a nonprofit that works on personalized learning and trends in teaching.

"Can we get different models to emerge so that we can evaluate them and figure out what assessment could look like when we get to the next reauthorization of [federal education law]?"

Baghian made it clear that in the state's view, the new test is not some sort of magic elixir for challenges in Louisiana public schools: "The test is not going to solve achievement gaps."

And Cynthia Posey, the legislative director for the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, said her union is still waiting to see whether the new assessment will disrupt instruction in social studies as well as English/language arts. She's worried that despite what the state says, the model curriculum's emphasis on what she called "cold reads" (dealing with texts students haven't previously encountered) could cause problems with the assessment pilot.

A spokeswoman for the state education department said that view is based on a misunderstanding of the model curriculum.

Posey also said she still doesn't know how the test will be used in teacher evaluations. (Test scores in certain grades and subjects currently factor into state teacher ratings.)

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"There's just a whole bunch of unanswered questions about it," Posey said.

Louisiana's approach to the challenge of orienting tests toward students' deep knowledge of a topic rather than rote skills is creative and holds potential, said Sandy Kress, who worked on the legislation that became the No Child Left Behind law as an adviser to President George W. Bush. But Kress cited three key issues that have hobbled previous attempts at new assessments.

"First, can we see the innards of the test they propose? And 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?"

Vol. 38, Issue 27, Pages 14-15

Published in Print: April 3, 2019, as In Drive to Revamp Tests, Some States in Pilot's Seat
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