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Will New Hampshire Be Arne Duncan’s ‘Test Case’ for Accountability 2.0?

By Alyson Klein — October 23, 2014 3 min read
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U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has been saying that he’d like to work with states and districts to help pare back the number of assessments students must take. A proposed pilot project in New Hampshire might present the department with a good “test case” (pun intended) on the shape that approach could take.

The Granite State, which has been experimenting with competency-based learning for years, is proposing a very small pilot project, in four of its roughly 84 districts. Those districts would test students every year. But, in some grades or subjects, they would use the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium tests, and in other grades or subjects they would use performance-based exams. These tests, known as PACE assessments in New Hampshire, are designed by the state and local districts in collaboration, Paul Leather, the deputy commissioner of education, said in an interview.

Both the PACE and Smarter Balanced tests would be supplemented with other, locally-developed performance-based assessments. And the whole system would be aligned to teacher evaluation in the state, Leather added.

The idea is to provide educators with “richer, deeper information than we’re able to get through large scale state assessments,” Mr. Leather said. (I previewed the proposal in an earlier story on testing.)

So will the U.S. Department of Education approve New Hampshire’s plan? And just how big a departure would it be from the No Child Left Behind Act? NCLB calls for states to test students using state-wide, summative assessments, in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school. (States are supposed to use the same tests for all students across all districts, but the department has made exceptions to this rule in the past.)

Leather, for one, doesn’t see the plan as a big step away from NCLB or the department’s waivers.

“We’re really not moving away from annual testing that leads to annual determination [of school’s progress],” he said. “Complex performance assessments are really state [summative] assessments, it’s just that we’ve developed them with local districts. ... we are creating, in fact, a system of multiple measures.”

The Granite State is going to test-run the common performance assessments whether it wins approval from the Education Department or not, Leather said.

“The real question is whether we will have to do the 3 through 8 and 11 Smarter Balanced as well,” he said. “We would really like not to do that” in the pilot districts.

New Hampshire, like more than 40 other states, has a waiver from the NCLB law. But its proposal could necessitate a revision to that plan.

So if New Hampshire gets the green-light from the department on its pilot plan, will a bunch of other states rush to try something similar?

Maybe not right away—New Hampshire has put a ton of work into its proposal and it would be hard for most other states to duplicate it without going through a similar process, folks who have worked with the Granite State say.

That’s not to say other states aren’t closely watching how New Hampshire’s proposal goes over with the department.

“There’s been lots of well-wishing from states,” who want to try new approaches to assessment, Leather said.

And at least one state, Kentucky, which has also been working on competency-based learning, says it would seek a similar deal if New Hampshire gets the go-ahead.

“We’re working right now to have that same model New Hampshire is working on,” Terry Holliday, the state’s commissioner of education, said in an interview. “If New Hampshire gets support from the department, it will be in our next waiver application also.”

Assessment geeks: If you’ve read Linda Darling Hammond’s proposal for a “51st state” model of accountability and New Hampshire’s proposal sounds familiar—that’s because it should.

New Hampshire based its assessment plan largely on her approach, and she’s serving as an adviser to the state. (It’s worth nothing that there’s been some pushback on Darling-Hammond’s accountability design, including on issues such as whether or not it can truly capture student growth. If you’re looking for a thoughtful critique, check out this Eduwonk blog post.)