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Every Student Succeeds Act

ESSA Offers Testing Flexibility. So Why Aren’t States Using It?

By Catherine Gewertz — April 03, 2018 6 min read
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More than two years after the Every Student Succeeds Act passed, only a handful of states are considering taking advantage of the testing flexibility the law offers—despite long-standing calls by many state officials for a freer hand on assessments.

ESSA lets states take new approaches to measuring student learning. But it doesn’t appear likely that those new opportunities will make a deep national impact on assessment anytime soon.

The law invited up to seven states, or groups of states, to participate in an “innovative assessment” pilot aimed at using performance tasks and other types of student work instead of states’ previous tests. But only Louisiana, New Hampshire, and Puerto Rico submitted applications by the April 2 deadline.

ESSA also says states can allow individual districts to drop their state’s high school exam and use a “nationally recognized” high school test such as the SAT or ACT instead.

But only three states have embraced that idea. North Dakota recently won federal permission to let districts substitute the ACT for the state high school test. Arizona is planning something similar. Oklahoma dumped its required end-of-course exams in high school and this spring is letting districts choose between the SAT and the ACT. But the Education Department has notified Oklahoma that it needs one main high school test—not just a choice of two—and has not yet approved its ESSA plan.

Local Choice on High School Tests

Georgia and Oregon are thinking about giving districts a choice. Florida considered it, too, but a report the state commissioned warned of potential problems, including a lack of alignment between the college-admissions exams and its own academic standards. If Florida is to move forward with that option, the legislature would have to act, and there are no such bills pending, said Cheryl Etters, a state department of education spokeswoman.

One California lawmaker has introduced legislation that would force the state to let districts have that choice. And a Colorado law requires the state to investigate the option. Georgia is awaiting the results of two studies it commissioned to see if the SAT and ACT fully cover its content standards and whether scores from those exams would be comparable to scores from Georgia’s end-of-course tests.

Allison Timberlake, Georgia’s assessment director, said the state wants to give districts “every opportunity to choose assessments that best meet the needs of students and the communities.” But it first needs to be sure that “no student or district is disadvantaged or advantaged” by the tests they use, she said.

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If one test produces higher proficiency rates than another, for instance, that schism could translate into problems for some schools and students. Schools are held accountable for their proficiency rates, and high school tests in Georgia count for 20 percent of a student’s grade, Timberlake said.

ESSA says that states don’t have to give assessments in one end-of-year session; they can administer interim tests during the year and roll those results together into one summative score. No state appears to be seriously considering that option.

Pennsylvania decided against it, said state education department spokeswoman Casey Smith. Officials there worried that using interim tests to report a summative score would be more time-consuming and expensive than giving one exam at year’s end, and that it could undermine efforts to maximize instructional time.

The state decided to ease the assessment burden in other ways: by cutting testing time by 20 percent and by moving tests later in the year to carve out more teaching time, Smith said.

What ESSA Didn’t Change

The main framework of required standardized tests—the stuff many activists and educators hate the most—is unchanged in ESSA.

States still must give yearly math and English/language arts exams to all students in grades 3-8 and high school. During the run-up to the law’s passage, some federal lawmakers pushed for testing students only three times during their K-12 years, the same way science tests are handled, but that didn’t fly. Some also pushed unsuccessfully to adopt “matrix sampling,” a testing approach that produces national data by giving pieces of a test to a representative sample of students. But ESSA retained the requirement that states test 95 percent of all students.

A national backlash against standardized testing drove the debate about the testing flexibilities in ESSA. In a bid to reduce overall testing time, the new law also encourages states to audit their bevy of tests and eliminate unnecessary ones.

And it stepped up its welcome for something that was already permitted in federal law: It invited states to embrace the SAT or ACT as their statewide high school achievement tests. While most states seem reluctant to let individual districts make that choice, many are embracing it themselves, adopting a college-admissions exam as their statewide high school test. Twelve states use the SAT or ACT as their high school tests for accountability. That trend had been taking shape several years before ESSA was passed.

Experts who track state policy say there are many reasons states haven’t rushed to commit to ESSA’s testing flexibilities.

“We’re seeing states starting to look at these, but the operative word is ‘look,’ ” said Jeremy Anderson, the president of the Education Commission of the States.

There are many new faces in state superintendent’s chairs since ESSA passed, and more than 30 states are now facing gubernatorial contests, Anderson said. He predicted more action on ESSA’s testing options once the dust settles on those leadership changes.

“I don’t think we’ll see a sea change, like 40 states making big moves,” Anderson said. “But I do think we’ll see 10 or 12 making significant changes over the next couple of years.”

Flexibility Comes With Burdens

ESSA’s testing flexibilities aren’t easy to adopt. Each one poses technical challenges, and that isn’t something many states relish right now, said Chris Domaleski, the associate director of the Center for Assessment, which provides technical assistance to states on assessment.

Psychometricians have warned, for instance, that combining interim assessments into one summative score might not produce valid results. States that let districts use a college-entrance exam instead of the statewide high school test must wrestle with how to factor those scores into their accountability systems. Not to mention the question of whether any new test fully reflects a state’s academic standards.

“All of these flexibilities come with new burdens that are nontrivial,” Domaleski said.

After the profound changes many states went through with the Common Core State Standards and related tests in the past seven years, most are placing a high priority on “minimizing disruption” and preserving longitudinal trends in their test scores, he said.

Kirsten Carr, who works with states on assessment and accountability issues as a senior program director at the Council of Chief State School Officers, said that a big chunk of states’ bandwidth in the past two years has been consumed by drafting and submitting their ESSA plans. With those out of the way, they’re just now turning to the nuances of the testing options in ESSA.

For the most part, Carr said, states are wrestling with the technical implications of those choices, such as how offering multiple tests at once will affect the validity and comparability of the results. States are now diving into “the legwork” needed to understand those issues, she said.

Carr rejected the idea that states’ slow response to ESSA’s testing flexibilities represents a lost opportunity to innovate, a view U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has expressed publicly.

“They’re being thoughtful and deliberate in their process, engaging with stakeholders to see what makes sense and what is required … as part of the statute,” she said.

A version of this article appeared in the April 04, 2018 edition of Education Week as In the Testing Arena, a Wait-and-See Attitude As States Eye ESSA’s Offer of New Leeway


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