Special Report
Every Student Succeeds Act

States Move With Caution in Weighing ESSA Testing Pilot

By Alyson Klein — December 30, 2016 4 min read

When Congress passed the Every Student Succeeds Act, state and district leaders were eager for the chance to try out a new breed of assessments, through a pilot program included in the law and open to a limited number of states.

But, as state policymakers took a closer look at the language in ESSA outlining the so-called Innovative Assessment pilot—including a set of what federal officials call stringent “guardrails” aimed partly at ensuring the new testing systems consider historically disadvantaged groups of students—they began to reconsider whether they wanted to participate.

Now, more than a year after ESSA’s passage, the pilot process has yet to officially get off the ground. There don’t seem to be many potential takers among state officials, and there are still a lot of unknowns when it comes to how the pilot will play out.

For one thing, the U.S. Department of Education under the Obama administration as of mid-December hadn’t yet outlined what the application process for states would look like, or when it would get started, or which states would be allowed to participate initially.

That leaves key details up to the incoming Trump administration. And it’s not even a sure thing that the Trump team will open the pilot at all; the law leaves it up to the education secretary to decide whether or not to let states take advantage of the flexibility.

As of mid-December, neither Trump nor his choice of education secretary, Betsy DeVos, a school choice advocate and GOP donor, had said much about the pilot or testing in general.

State Readiness

The pilot was inspired by New Hampshire, which spent years experimenting with competency-based education, a model that considers whether students have mastered certain skills. In March of 2015, months before ESSA passed, the state received permission from the Education Department to try out new performance assessments in a handful of districts before eventually taking that system statewide. The pilot drew interest—and visitors—from across the country, and ESSA ultimately included language that could eventually open similar opportunities up to every state.

ESSA starts the pilot off small; no more than seven states can join in the initial phase. After three years, the law directs the Institute of Education Sciences, the research arm of the Education Department, to take stock of the program’s progress. The secretary of education then can choose to open the flexibility up to all states.

But, at least right now, few states are as prepared as New Hampshire was to take immediate advantage of the leeway in the law, said Lillian Pace, the senior director of national policy at KnowledgeWorks, a nonprofit that works to better personalize learning for students.

She is hoping that a new administration would consider giving states some time—and some new funding—to really think through how they can take advantage of the flexibility.

“I would love to see the next administration actually provide start-up resources,” said Pace, in an interview before the 2016 election. “That would help bring the right expertise to the table.”

The pilot, she said, was meant to provide a bridge to a new generation of tests. “The interest is there, but the barriers seem so overwhelming right now,” Pace said. “I don’t know if we’re going to see this opportunity amount to as much as we had hoped.”

Guardrails in Place

Even with more time and some additional funding, states that want to participate will still have to jump over some serious hurdles.

For instance, ESSA requires states seeking to join the pilot to eventually take their new testing systems statewide. They also will have to make sure the tests are valid and reliable and that the results can be compared among different districts, including those that are taking the traditional statewide assessment.

Participating states also must make sure that they are testing a representative sample of students by the end of the so-called “demonstration period,” which is supposed to last for five years, according to the law, with the possibility of a two-year extension. That means that a state with a big population of English-language learners, such as California, would have to make sure that it tests its new approach on districts with a hefty number of ELLs.

Some states that had initially expressed interest in the pilot are now leaning against participating.

“We really looked at that. I almost feel like we can be more innovative without the innovative pilot,” said Jillian Balow, Wyoming’s state superintendent of public instruction. The state is in the market for a new testing system. “The innovative pilot says, ‘This is how you have to be innovative.’ … Being innovative on our own, without going into that pilot-state mode just gives us a little bit more flexibility.”

But Paul Leather, New Hampshire’s deputy commissioner, said that while the process has been challenging, it’s beginning to pay dividends.

The Granite State’s pilot has been embraced by many in the local business community who want to hire employees that can collaborate and tackle problems in an innovative way. Almost every week, a new district asks to join the effort, Leather said.

Best of all, the pilot is making a difference in the classroom, and, he thinks, boosting student learning.

“We have essentially placed assessment and accountability in the hands of local educators,” Leather said. “It has been very effective. We’re already starting to see some significant improvements in performance in the second year” of the flexibility.

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