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New Hampshire Gets Approval to Try Out Local Assessments

By Alyson Klein — March 05, 2015 5 min read
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A handful of districts in New Hampshire will be allowed to use a system of competency-based tests in lieu of statewide assessments in certain grade spans, according to a letter sent Thursday to the Granite State by U.S. assistant secretary of elementary and secondary education Deb Delisle.

The idea is to test-run a new assessment system that can eventually be taken statewide, if it’s successful.

The approval of New Hampshire’s request—which has been in the works for months, if not years—sends a really important signal about the approach that the U.S. Department of Education would like to take on local assessment systems, which have been a hot issue during the debate over the rewriting of the No Child Left Behind Act. More on that below.

New Hampshire, which has been experimenting with competency-based learning for years, is getting the OK to move ahead with competency-based tests, developed through a collaboration of the state and districts, in four of its roughly 85 districts. Those districts would still assess students every year. If all goes well, the state could expand the pilot to eight districts the following year.

In some grades or subjects, the pilot districts would use the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium tests (the test the rest of the state is using) and in other grades or subjects they would use performance-based exams. These performance-based tests, known as PACE assessments in New Hampshire, were crafted with input from both state and district folks, Paul Leather, the deputy commissioner of education, told me in an interview back in October.

New Hampshire is hoping the new system will provide educators with “richer, deeper information than we’re able to get through large-scale state assessments,” he said at the time.
This local testing pilot is a departure from the NCLB law, which calls for states to test students using the same statewide, summative assessment, in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school. Instead, the New Hampshire districts participating in the pilot would only take statewide tests once in elementary school, once in middle school, and once in high school. (This isn’t a total first, the Education Department has made exceptions to this rule in the past.)

The local testing waiver is just for two years, giving New Hampshire essentially until the end of the Obama administration to work on the pilot. If the competency-based tests aren’t a success, New Hampshire has promised to go back to using the Smarter Balanced tests with all of its students.

What’s more, New Hampshire has agreed to put its competency-based system through the rigors of the department’s peer-review system, in which assessment experts take a hard look at tests to see if they pass muster. It’s tough to say just what the impact of this will be, since the peer review process has been paused. New criteria are being developed and are expected to be released soon.

Can Other States Try?

So could any state do this? Kentucky, which also has experience with competency-based learning, is interested in asking for something similar, the state’s commissioner of education, Terry Holliday, told me back in October.

It’s too early to say who else might qualify, Delisle said. But she noted that New Hampshire has been working with competency learning for five years—and that designing these performance tasks hasn’t been easy. There’s needed to be tons of coordination, for one thing, between teachers and the state and among teachers in different districts, in developing the assessments. That’s not something every state would be able to move on right away.

“New Hampshire has been engaged for quite some time,” Delisle said. “People say, ‘Can’t any other state do this?’ and the answer would be, ‘Well, yes, but...’,” it’s not simple, she said.

NCLB implications

The Granite State’s waiver is especially important because it didn’t happen in a vacuum.

There’s been a lot of interest in making more room for locally designed assessments as part of the new accountability structure in an NCLB rewrite. In fact, the Council of Chief State School Officers’ recommendations for revising the NCLB law make room for proposals like New Hampshire’s. The CCSSO wants to keep annual assessments in a revised version of the law.

But it also wants to allow for locally designed assessment systems that could pilot new approaches. If those pilots are successful, they could eventually be taken statewide. That’s exactly what New Hampshire has asked for here.

And it seems like Congress is intrigued. Leather testified at a Senate hearing on testing and NCLB. And Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., included language allowing for local assessments in a draft bill to revise the NCLB law, the current version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. (The key difference between his proposal and what New Hampshire is doing—and what CCSSO asked for—is that the feds would not get to sign off on the local pilots, just the states.)

What’s more, when the House considered (but ultimately, tabled) an NCLB rewrite bill last week, it included language that would allow districts to use their own local testing systems in lieu of the state’s, as long as states give the OK. The local systems would become part of the state’s plan for using Title I dollars, and those plans are submitted to the department.

Local testing has been tried under NCLB before, in Nebraska. But ultimately, it was very hard to make sure those tests were comparable statewide, something that New Hampshire will be paying close attention to as part of its pilot, Delisle told me

So is the Obama administration signaling that it’s open to local tests in reauthorization of ESEA?

Delisle’s answer: “I think the secretary has been very clear that we’re willing to look at innovative assessment. We would like to see continued annual statewide assessments. We also want to be sure that there is information provided to parents, and annual reporting,” all of which New Hampshire has promised to deliver on. “I think that this is totally in line with what we’ve said.”