Special Report

States Collaborate in Pursuit of Fresh Accountability Ideas

By Andrew Ujifusa — December 30, 2015 9 min read
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In 2014, Colorado began to re-examine its definition of what it means for a student to be ready for postsecondary education and the workforce. The idea was not just to have that definition more closely aligned with the state’s academic standards but also to inform the graduation requirements at high schools in the state.

But Gretchen Morgan, the interim associate commissioner for innovation, choice, and engagement at the Colorado education department, wasn’t confined to the state’s borders when she and her colleagues started this effort. They had help from a partnership of states.

The Innovation Lab Network, which started in 2011, is a group of states working collaboratively to rethink, redesign, and lobby for changes to instruction and accountability that are intended to start in districts and evolve into systems that can work across states.

The network operates under the auspices of the Council of Chief State School Officers and helps individual states flesh out programs related to personalized learning, assessment and accountability, and the factors that go into college- and career-readiness.

“The ILN has just been this very supportive channel for us to get access to experts in other states,” Morgan said.

The 12 states working in the Innovation Lab Network are California, Colorado, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, New Hampshire, Ohio, Oregon, Virginia, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. That number has doubled since the network began.

Building From Scratch

Five principles are at the foundation of the ILN’s work, with the ultimate goal of preparing “every student for college, career, and citizenship.” The principles include definitions of college- and career-readiness, personalized learning, “balanced systems” of assessment, accountability linked to college- and career-readiness, and “seamless pathways” to postsecondary life.

More broadly, the network also encourages states to consider how they would build accountability and other K-12 systems if they could start from scratch.

The network started off by facilitating group conversations among education officials from member states. But as the project evolved and collaboration increased, the network’s overseers realized that states needed more customized support.

Policy Tested

The Innovation Lab Network is a group of 12 states collaborating to improve their education systems through personalized learning, new accountability and assessments systems, and other policies. An initiative of the Council of Chief State School Officers, the network focuses on making innovations started at the local district level work on a larger scale. Its work is based on five principles aimed at preparing every student for college, career, and citizenship.


Source: Council of Chief State School Officers

In addition to states working together in smaller subgroups depending on their respective projects, each state got its own liaison who is a staffer at the network. That liaison spends an hour on the phone with their state’s K-12 officials every month, in addition to conversations before and after each call, to discuss the state’s progress.

The ILN realizes it has to be “a student of each state,” said Jennifer Davis Poon, the ILN’s director. That allows the organization to help states while also recognizing their autonomy and unique policy and political environments, she said.

“States write their own goals. They have their own metric. They have their own mechanisms for achieving their own goals,” Poon said. “But they anchor that against the common framework.”

In working with the network and with individual states, Morgan of the Colorado department picked up on various initiatives from states that gave her a more informed perspective on how state and local accountability systems could work together.

She learned, for example, about locally identified measures of accountability in California, such as a focus on English-language learners, allowed through a measure Golden State lawmakers approved in 2013. And she was able to learn more about Vermont’s Education Quality Reviews, which the state is piloting this year. Vermont will do a “snapshot” and a field review of whether individual schools are adhering to the state’s Education Quality Standards that set requirements for curriculum, instructional practices, and graduation requirements at the state and local level.

Earlier this year, prior to adopting legislation that allows some districts to try out their own locally selected assessments alongside the state exam, Colorado lawmakers reached out to the state education department to figure out the impact and feasibility of local tests. Officials like Morgan were able to draw on their experience with the ILN. But more informally, the network allowed state officials to better help their districts pursue their own objectives, from personalized learning to competency-based education.

“We have a number of districts who are working on one of those things or an integrated view of those things,” Morgan said. “We’ve become, in turn, a network.”

While Vermont was providing information to Colorado, it was seeking its own kind of help from the ILN, which Vermont joined last year. The state’s Education Quality Standards require all students to have personalized learning plans by the 7th grade.

Amy Fowler, Vermont’s deputy education secretary, said that the state had the policy, but not a great deal of guidance as to how to help schools transition to it. That’s where, she said, the ILN helped connect her to other states that had pilot zones or regions that were doing similar work.

“It had given me access to resources that, as a single person doing this work, I wouldn’t have been able to do that breadth of work,” Fowler said of the network.

One of the more influential projects that the ILN is supporting is in New Hampshire, where a handful of districts are piloting performance-based assessments with the assent of the U.S. Department of Education to fulfill federal testing mandates. Given throughout the year, they are designed to provide ongoing feedback to teachers to improve their instruction and are intended to supplant traditional summative exams.

A Test Drive

That work, in turn, builds on New Hampshire’s extensive record of examining ways to stress competency-based learning instead of seat time as a way for students to demonstrate their knowledge and understanding. Colorado and Ohio are among the states that have studied New Hampshire’s experience.

Skeptics of these exams, which are developed at the local level, say that replicating them so that test results can be compared across schools and districts is a difficult if not impossible task. But New Hampshire, which this school year is allowing eight districts to pilot local assessment work after having four do so in the 2014-15 year, is determined to have these local tests overcome obstacles.

To start his 10th grade American Studies class at Souhegan High School in Amherst, N.H., Sean Whalen splits his students into smaller groups and has them discuss a story about the media’s distortion of truth with respect to the “Deflategate” controversy about football tampering that surrounds the nearest NFL team, the New England Patriots. It’s part of the students’ study of media and rhetoric.

The summative-performance assessment for the class, also called an “exhibition,” will be student-produced documentaries, which are intended to fuse writing skills and a knowledge of history with different media platforms. The exhibition creates one of the common environments for performance assessment at Souhegan: group work, in which students are measured not just by academics but also by how they figure out their strengths and share responsibilities with others.

“That’s where we do a lot of the assessment, in that kind of setup,” Whalen said. "[It] allows for more experimentation. The kids feel more supported in that environment.”

The idea is for these assessments to allow for continual growth. As a result, everything from grading systems to who can give students feedback has shifted.

“It definitely made you stretch your mind,” said Emily Benson, a junior at nearby Spaulding High School in Rochester, N.H., which began using local performance assessments in the 2014-15 year.

The work can become very time-intensive. For example, math teachers at Spaulding High went through more than 20 versions of a summative-performance task before administering it to their students last spring.

“In all the years I’ve taught, I’ve never seen the students so engaged as when they engaged with these performance tasks,” math teacher Lee Sheedy said of the changed atmosphere in his classroom.

Mixed Results

Souhegan High School has been using common performance assessments in each course for several years. Recent academic results from the school are mixed.

Souhegan students’ average SAT verbal, math, and reading scores for the class of 2015 are all lower than for the class of 2012 and the class of 2014. In addition, the percentage of Souhegan’s graduating students attending four-year colleges after graduation dipped by 18 percentage points from the class of 2014 to the class of 2015.

On the other hand, 73 percent of Souhegan 11th graders met or exceeded the standard in reading on the new Smarter Balanced test administered last spring and aligned to the Common Core State Standards, and 45 percent of them did so in math, compared with the respective statewide proficiency rates of 59 percent and 37 percent.

Meanwhile, for the 2014-15 school year 48 percent of New Hampshire students taking the local performance assessments met or exceeded expectations in English/language arts, and 43 percent did so in math.

In addition to supporting New Hampshire’s assessment work in the classroom and at the state level, Innovation Lab staffers also helped out the Granite State in one other respect: lobbying the federal government.

Network staff members worked with state education officials to persuade the Education Department to include the pilot performance-assessment program in the state’s waiver from portions of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2015. New Hampshire K-12 officials also testified to Congress about their assessment pilot.

Under the state’s waiver, the state is supposed to present the results of the pilot to the Education Department at the end of the 2015-16 school year. If these locally developed assessments don’t work out in the judgment of the federal peer-review system, New Hampshire has promised to require all its schools to use the Smarter Balanced exam for all students.

Momentum Builds

It’s not exactly clear how that timeline or plan would be affected by the federal legislative environment. But the idea has gotten momentum beyond New Hampshire. As part of the Every Student Succeeds Act, the bill to reauthorize the main federal education law that was signed into law by President Barack Obama last month, a handful of states could apply to try out similar kinds of tests as New Hampshire’s.

Still, even with the federal government’s stamp of approval, the ILN’s Poon said that creating local assessments outside New Hampshire won’t simply be a cut-and-paste process, even if other states are able to participate in a local testing pilot under a reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

“It’s going to be harder probably for larger states,” Poon said. “But other states have a considerable leg up because of the pioneering work that New Hampshire has done.”

Forging Links

The ILN sees that much of its mission is to help pilots grow within states as much as it is to help share work across state lines. The network, for example, aims to make new connections between state policy leaders and experts who can help them design accountability models based on their previous work.

“They help me get out of my overly local thinking,” Vermont’s Fowler said of ILN staff. “They help me become part of a national conversation.”

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