Your Education Road Map

Politics K-12®

ESSA. Congress. State chiefs. School spending. Elections. Education Week reporters keep watch on education policy and politics in the nation’s capital and in the states. Read more from this blog.

Every Student Succeeds Act

Obama Administration Releases Final Testing Regulations for ESSA

By Alyson Klein — December 07, 2016 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

The U.S. Department of Education on Wednesday released final regulations and new guidance governing how testing is supposed to work under the Every Student Succeeds Act. It also announced $8 million in grants to states to improve science tests.

If you’ve read through the proposal for assessments that a group of educators and advocates negotiated last spring, these final regulations will probably look very familiar to you. Like No Child Left Behind, ESSA requires states to test students every year, but provides a bit more flexibility for states to try out new kinds of tests or use a nationally recognized college entrance test at the high school level. The regulations flesh out these and other testing provisions of the law.

And the Obama administration also said that it is giving $8 million to two state consortia—one led by the Maryland Department of Education and one led by the Nebraska Department of Education. Both groups will be working on improving and developing science tests.

The Maryland-led consortium—which includes Missouri, New York, New Jersey, and Oklahoma—will be working on new tests aligned the Next Generation Science Standards, which have been adopted by more than a dozen states. The consortium led by Nebraska includes Montana and Wyoming and aims to improve the quality of statewide science exams.

The release of the grant, the regulations, and the guidance is timed to coincide with a summit at the White House highlighting the Obama administration’s efforts to improve assessments and reduce testing. That’s been a focus of the administration’s K-12 work at the end of the president’s second term. You can watch a webcast of the summit starting at 9 a.m.

President Barack Obama’s thinking on testing has gone through twists and turns through his eight years in office. The administration initially enticed states to tie teacher evaluations to test scores through the $4 billion Race to the Top program and later through waivers from the No Child Left Behind Act.

But, last year, the president acknowledged that there was too much testing in schools, and put together a “testing action plan” to address the problem. The White House says these new testing regulations build on that plan, but there isn’t much in them to cut back on assessments that isn’t in the underlying law.

What’s more, it’s unclear if the incoming Trump administration will keep these regulations on the books, decide to hit the pause button on them, or not go out of their way to enforce them.

So what is in these assessments regs? Here’s a quick overview:

Testing Regulations: These govern sections of ESSA that include the option for school districts to choose a nationally recognized high school test (like the SAT) in lieu of the state test, along with sections dealing with tests for students in special education and English-language learners, and computer-adaptive tests. The regulations also laid out ground rules spelling out when 8th graders who are performing above grade level can take advanced math tests instead of the state exam. You can read a full description of them here.

The final regulations make a couple of changes to the proposed regs, which were crafted earlier this year by a cadre of advocates and educators through a process known as negotiated rulemaking. Two key changes to note, according to a White House fact sheet:

  • The final regulations tweak the criteria for deciding when a state can get a waiver for exceeding the 1 percent statewide cap on the percentage of students who can be given alternate tests because they have severe cognitive disabilities. This cap and the waiver were the subject of intense discussion during the negotiated rulemaking
  • The changes also clarify when Native American language tests can be used for accountability purposes.

Innovative Assessment Regulations: These govern the Innovative Assessment Pilot, which allows up to seven states to try out new kinds of tests—including performance-based tests—in a handful of districts before going statewide. Proposed regulations for the pilot released over the summer sought to clarify how states can prove these district tests are comparable to the state exam.

The final regulations released Wednesday make several changes, including:

  • Making it clear that an innovative test can include material above or below the tested grade level, as long it ultimately measures student performance based on grade-level expectations.
  • Additional information about how a state can show that its innovative test results can be compared to the state exam.
  • Making it clear that not only do the innovative tests in a particular district need to be comparable to the state test, they also need to be comparable to the test results from other districts.

The guidance, which isn’t legally binding, offers states tips for using federal funding to review the number and content of the tests they require, with an eye toward getting rid of low-quality or redundant tests.