Draft Criteria for Federal Reviews of State Assessments Expected This Summer

By Catherine Gewertz — June 25, 2014 3 min read
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New Orleans

A top official from the U.S. Department of Education is spreading the word here at a student-assessment conference: A draft of the criteria that will shape the way the department approves states’ tests will be issued this summer.

Monique M. Chism, the director of student achievement and accountability in the department’s Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, shared the timeline for peer-assessment reviews with a gathering of state assessment directors on June 24, the first day of the Council of Chief State School Officers’ annual student-assessment conference here, and with the CCSSO’s state collaboratives on assessment and other topics. Chism also discussed the timeline in one of the sessions at the conference that was aimed at discussing—and influencing—the way the criteria are being shaped.

Chism called the summer document “a straw man” draft, since it is intended to be a first effort to spark more thoughts and input. After rounds of additional feedback and public hearings, the department is aiming to release the final criteria in the first few months of 2015, she said.

Peer-review criteria sound really wonky, right? And they are. But to show you how important they are, news of the timeline zapped through this conference quicker than anything else, causing more buzz even than the fighting words Louisiana Superintendent John White offered in a lunchtime speech. (He declared that “an unconstitutional and illegal act, done for political reasons, has stopped assessment in Louisiana,” referring to his standoff with Gov. Bobby Jindal over which tests will be given in 2014-15.)

The criteria that the department uses for peer-review of states’ assessments are important because they are a potentially powerful lever to shape the way states design their tests. In the past, the reviews have been focused on whether tests are aligned to state standards, however low or high those standards were.

But it’s no secret that the department wants to reshape those criteria to exert pressure on states to use what it considers high quality tests. Though the department hasn’t issued an exact definition of what a high quality test is, it isn’t a long shot to imagine that its requirements for design of the PARCC and Smarter Balanced testing systems might yield a whole boatload of clues.

But for a variety of reasons you can easily imagine, the department can’t exactly write peer-review criteria that only PARCC and Smarter Balanced can meet.

As we’ve reported, barely half the states in the country actually plan to use those tests in the spring of 2015. But the others don’t have a ton of time to design high-quality assessments that measure the depth and breadth of the common standards (whatever version of those states plan to use), either.

What the department ultimately requires states to prove when their tests are examined, then, is of intense interest to the assessment field right now. Will they feel the criteria are fair, and take into account the complex landscapes on which they operate, with teacher evaluation and state accountability casting long shadows? Which tests will meet the mark and which won’t? And will states have to scramble to revise their assessments?

All of these questions have been hovering since the department quietly suspended peer review of assessments a year and a half ago. Last August, it put out a call for input about what kinds of things should guide its new process. Chism declined to offer specifics when I asked her which of the top minds in the assessment world had contributed to shaping the process so far. And she said that the department has not yet issued a call to the field for peer reviewers.

But she did say that the department was fully aware of two papers that outlined their visions of “high quality assessment” in an effort to shape the department’s process: one by the CCSSO, and another by a group of respected testing scholars.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.