Every Student Succeeds Act

States Slow to Adopt ESSA’s Testing Flexibility

By Alyson Klein — January 17, 2018 4 min read
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The Every Student Succeeds Act, which passed more than two years ago, sought to assuage critics of standardized testing by giving districts and states new flexibility with their assessments.

But two years after the law passed, it looks like very few states will end up allowing districts to give a nationally recognized college entrance exam in place of the state assessment for high school accountability.

And, at least initially, there likely won’t be many states raising their hands to participate in ESSA’s innovative assessment pilot, which allows up to seven states or consortia of states to try out new kinds of tests in a handful of districts before taking them statewide. The Education Department announced this month that applications for the pilot are due April 2.

States that don’t participate in this first group may be able to jump in down the line. ESSA allows the department to open up the innovative-testing option to all states three years after the initial group of seven has begun its work.

The pilot was inspired by work on performance assessment already underway in New Hampshire, thanks to a waiver from the previous version of the law, the No Child Left Behind Act. At least three other states—Georgia, Hawaii, and New York—expressed formal interest in the pilot in the ESSA plans they submitted to the Education Department. And Colorado passed a law calling on its state education agency to seek the flexibility.

But Lillian Pace, the senior director of national policy at KnowledgeWorks, a nonprofit group that supports state and federal policymakers interested in personalized-learning systems, isn’t necessarily expecting a flood of applications. In order to participate in the pilot, states have to be ready to try a new form of testing, such as performance-based assessments, in at least a few districts.

The state must also have a plan for comparing the results of these tests to the traditional state exam in making sure that English-language learners and students in special education are given appropriate accommodations, and for putting the tests in place in all districts down the line.

“I wouldn’t expect to see seven strong applications for states that are ready to go by April,” Pace said. But the release of the application will provide a starting point for “a really robust and serious conversation” that could pave the way for more states to participate down the line.

One Less Test

When ESSA was passed back in 2015, some superintendents were intrigued by the option to offer a college entrance exam in lieu of the state test for high school accountability. They argued it would mean one less test for many 11th graders, who would already be preparing for the SAT or ACT, the two most commonly used college entrance exams. Assessment experts, on the other hand, worried the change would make student progress a lot harder to track.

Now, it appears that only two states—North Dakota and Oklahoma—have immediate plans to offer their districts a choice of tests. Policymakers in at least two other states—Georgia and Florida—are thinking through the issue. Arizona and Oregon could also be in the mix.

Offering a choice of tests can be a tall order for state education officials, said Julie Woods, a senior policy analyst at the Education Commission of the States. They have to figure out how to pay for the college entrance exams and find a way to compare student scores on the state test to scores on the SAT, ACT, or another test.

That’s “potentially a lot more work than states are currently doing,” Woods said.

What’s more, the prospect of allowing districts to pick among multiple tests—and potentially change them from year-to-year—drives assessment experts “batty,” said Scott Marion, the executive director of the Center for Assessment, which works with states to design and implement tests.

“You’re just lost, you’re just grasping at straws for any kind of comparability” among school districts that take different tests, he said.

Potential State Takers

But some states think the potential upside outweighs any concerns.

North Dakota, for instance, wants to offer its districts the chance to take the ACT instead of the state exam, said Kay Mayer, a spokeswoman for the state education department. The state will need approval from the department for technical reasons, dealing with the federal peer review process. And Oklahoma plans to give districts a choice between the ACT and the SAT. Georgia finds the option enticing, too. In fact, the state legislature passed a bill last year calling on the state board of education to examine this and other testing flexibility offered under ESSA. The state has started on that work now, said Allison Timberlake, the interim deputy superintendent for assessment and accountability.

“It’s a slow methodical process to make sure that everything is in place and well aligned,” Timberlake said. State lawmakers in Florida have also expressed interest in offering their districts a choice of the ACT, SAT, or state exam. So far, though, bills that would make this possible have died in the legislature. Lawmakers required the state to study the issue, and a report released last week concluded that it wasn’t a good idea.

Oregon’s ESSA plan, which has gotten the green light from the U.S. Department of Education, includes a line saying the state will “pursue flexibility under ESSA to allow districts to use a nationally recognized assessment in place of the state exam.” And Arizona has also passed a law that would give its districts a choice of tests, not just in high school, but in K-8 schools, too. Arizona didn’t include any mention of its testing law in its ESSA plan, which has already been approved by the department.

A version of this article appeared in the January 17, 2018 edition of Education Week as States Slow in Adopting ESSA’s Testing Flexibility


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