Special Report
Every Student Succeeds Act

States, Districts Still Wrestling With Flexibility on Assessments

Educators welcome the Every Student Succeeds Act’s lighter federal reins on testing, but want to make sure those tests still do what they need to do.
By Catherine Gewertz — December 30, 2016 | Corrected: January 17, 2017 7 min read
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Corrected: An earlier version of this article misspelled the last name of Michelle Exstrom, the education program director at the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The Every Student Succeeds Act opened the door to two types of assessment flexibility for all states that could seriously reshape the national testing landscape. But a year after the law was signed, few states or districts appear inclined to take advantage of them.

The new federal education law allows states to permit school districts to substitute a “nationally recognized” high school test, such as the ACT or the SAT, for their states’ own high school exam. The law also lets states divide annual assessments into chunks, and roll those interim results into one summative score for accountability purposes.

Both options are separate from a more-limited pilot program that will let a handful of states develop a new breed of assessments on their own.

The limited pilot program has yet to get off the ground.

Separately no state has yet decided to go with the aggregated-interims option, though at least one is exploring the idea. Arizona is the only state so far that plans to try the option of a locally chosen high school test.

A law signed by Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey in March 2016 requires that state’s board of education to come up with a menu of tests that districts can use instead of the state’s own AzMerit. Districts are supposed to be able to choose from that list for grades 9-12 in the 2017-18 school year, and for grades 3-8 in 2018-19.

Board member Calvin Baker said that the panel is starting to hear presentations from vendors, who will have to prove that their products are valid for use in the state’s accountability system. Baker, the superintendent of the Vail school district, near Tucson, said he is reserving judgment about the approach until the board completes its work. He likes its flexibility, but he wants to be sure that tests other than AzMerit yield the information the state needs.

“I’ll want to know, do these other tests truly test our state standards? Is it possible to compare the results of one of those tests to our state test?” he said. “The bigger quest is to protect accountability. We want to be flexible, but we also need to be sure we’ve got a system that identifies schools’ accomplishments, and where they need help.”

But Arizona could run into legal problems with the “menu” approach in grades 3-8. ESSA requires states to administer the same test to all students in grades 3-8. It’s only at the high school level that it allows states to substitute another assessment. State education department spokesman Charles Tack acknowledged that the new law “would appear to be in conflict with ESSA.” U.S. Department of Education spokeswoman Jessica Allen said federal officials are “concerned” about the menu approach to testing in grades 3-8.

“We understand that this portion of the law does not take effect until the 2018-19 school year, and we hope that the state will use this time to ensure that its schools administer high-quality assessments in accordance with the law,” Allen said in an email.

Florida lawmakers in their 2016 session considered a bill that would have allowed districts to use other tests, such as the PSAT, SAT, or ACT Aspire, instead of the state’s exam in high school, but the bill died without a vote by either chamber. A Colorado law requires the department of education to “investigate and review” assessment options, including one that would let local districts choose their own tests. The Colorado law also requires the education department to apply for another kind of ESSA testing flexibility, the innovative assessment pilot.

Our juniors are test-fatigued. ... It’s hard to get them motivated, and it’s hard not to empathize with their test fatigue."

Testing was a hot topic in state legislatures in 2016. Key themes emerged from the hundreds of bills that passed through those chambers, according to Michelle Exstrom, the education program director at the National Conference of State Legislatures, which tracks state laws. Many of the bills dealt with switching assessments, clarifying parents’ rights to opt students out of tests, or giving districts more testing flexibility. But few moved states toward the kinds of testing flexibility ESSA offers, she said.

In meetings last year about testing issues, most states expressed reluctance to let districts choose their own high school tests, said Marianne Perie, who oversees an assessment working group for the Council of Chief State School Officers.

Complex Oversight

One reason for that could be the complexity of overseeing different tests, said Scott Norton, the CCSSO’s director of strategic initiatives in standards, accountability and assessment.

“Districts want to use a test that matters, and students care more about their SAT or ACT score than about their state test score,” he said. “If districts could use one of those, and get rid of their state test, they’d reduce their burden and get more [student] engagement. But states might not be that enthusiastic about managing different tests. It’s simpler for them if everyone is on the same page.”

Though they may get pushback from their states, many school districts find the local high school option appealing. Vermont surveyed its stakeholders and found that 83 percent of administrators and 88 percent of teachers favored a switch from Smarter Balanced, a test designed by one of two federally funded consortia, to the SAT or ACT at the high school level.

“Our juniors are test-fatigued,” said Mike McGraith, the principal of Montpelier High School in Montpelier, Vt. “Many take AP tests in May, and they’re already taking the SAT multiple times, the PSAT in the fall, and the science [state test]. Then we have to turn to this group of 17-year-olds and say, ‘Would you please try your hardest on this fairly involved long test that doesn’t count for you, but it counts for us?’ It’s hard to get them motivated, and it’s hard not to empathize with their test fatigue.”

In considering the option of rolling interim tests into a summative result, states and districts could enjoy some benefits, Norton said. As part of a coherent system, interim tests could help reduce testing overall by serving both as periodic, instructionally useful feedback, and also, combined, as a summative result for accountability, he said. But it would also be a heavy lift for states, since they’d have to ensure that the interims have met rigorous specifications, and give high-security tests several times a year, instead of just once, he said.

North Carolina is in the second year of a pilot that uses the aggregated results of three interim tests each year to measure student achievement. But Tammy Howard, who is overseeing the so-called “NC Check-In” project as the state’s director of accountability services, said it isn’t intended as a possible substitute for North Carolina’s own end-of-grade and end-of-course tests. The state is simply interested in seeing how well “segmented” tests capture students’ mastery.

Instructional Feedback

Teachers love the interim tests so much, Howard said, that they’re asking the state not to use them as part of a summative system for accountability. Because the tests are for instructional feedback, they’re not held in high-security conditions, so teachers can get better access to the test questions, and detailed results, than if they were high-stakes accountability assessments, Howard said. “Teachers find the feedback so useful, they want to keep it that way,” she said.

An assessment task force in Pennsylvania recommended that the state explore the possibility of using interim tests to get a summative score for accountability. Beth Olanoff, a special assistant to the state secretary of education on ESSA, said she and her colleagues are discussing the possibility and plan to conduct a feasibility study on the approach.

It’s appealing, on the one hand, because it would “chunk” summative tests into several sittings across the year, minimizing the impact of one big end-of-year test, especially on the youngest students, Olanoff said. And it could offer teachers more frequent, instructionally useful feedback. But testing is disruptive, and Pennsylvania officials still “need to have a fuller conversation about whether [the approach is] worth that kind of disruption more frequently,” Olanoff said.

Venessa A. Keesler, Michigan’s deputy superintendent for educator, student, and school supports, said Michigan is mulling the use of interim tests in some grades, but psychometricians have raised caution flags about whether aggregated interim results would be valid for summative purposes. Teachers want tests with “more of a formative feel,” to help them better meet students’ needs, Keesler said. But whether that’s possible in the context of a state accountability system isn’t entirely clear, she said.

“No state is really doing that,” Keesler said. “This is emerging science.”


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