No Child Left Behind Rewrite Spells Out Assessment Details

By Catherine Gewertz — December 03, 2015 4 min read
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You’ve likely heard by now that the No Child Left Behind Act rewrite, passed by the House yesterday, preserves annual testing requirements in grades 3-8 and high school. But there are a host of other interesting assessment specifications in the bill that are worth noting, especially because some of them fly in the face of the most notable thing about the legislation: that it shifts power back to the state from the U.S. Secretary of Education.

Here are a few ways the Every Student Succeeds Act gives the federal education department a big influence on testing:

Annual tests, with results publicly reported. You’ve already heard this part. It’s the same deal as in NCLB: annually in grades 3 to 8, and once in high school, and results have to be disaggregated by categories such as race, gender, income.

95 percent participation. This requirement that schools test 95 percent of their students—and 95 percent in each subgroup—is carried over from No Child Left Behind.

Test specifications. States must use tests that have at least three achievement levels, and they must set “challenging” cut scores for each level. As in previous iterations of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, tests must be used for all students, be aligned to state standards, and be capable of gauging higher-order thinking skills. They cannot “evaluate or assess personal or family beliefs and attitudes.” In this version, however, there is new language that says tests must provide “coherent and timely” information about how students are progressing and whether they’re performing at grade level.

Interim testing. It’s not just annual testing; states’ plans, submitted to the secretary, have to provide for interim progress, too.

Here are some ways that the bill gives more power to states on testing:

Restricting the federal bully pulpit. Outcry about the U.S. Department of Education’s attempts to reward states for adopting the common core—and its financing of common-core tests—has produced new limiting language in this version of ESEA. Check it out: “The Secretary shall not attempt to influence, incentivize, or coerce State adoption of the Common Core State Standards developed under the Common Core State Standards Initiative or any other academic standards common to a significant number of States, or assessments tied to such standards.”

Annual tests, with results publicly reported. Hey, wait, didn’t we just put that in the “federal power” category? Yeah, we did. But it’s also here, because this bill eliminates provisions that impose consequences on schools and districts for doing poorly on tests. They have to develop improvement plans for some key failings, such as poor performance by subgroups, but there are no federal hammers that can be brought down if they fall short of their goals.

Test specifications. Hey! Isn’t this is another one from the “federal power” section again? What’s up? Yes, it is. That’s because there is a state-power side to this one, too. Even with the prescriptive requirements for testing, the bill also frees up states to assess some skills in new ways, such as with portfolios of work, projects, and performance tasks. And they can do their summative testing at the end of the year, or spread it out across the year in smaller chunks, as long as those chunks can be combined into one summative score.

95 percent participation. There you go again! You said this provision was in the “federal power” column! That’s right. But here we go again with the flip-side stuff. The bill lists no federal consequences for states or districts if they fail to meet the participation requirement.

Opt-outs. The bill says that states may pass laws letting parents opt their children out of assessments. It also requires districts and schools to let parents know about their state’s relevant policies on opting students out of testing.

N-size. What the heck is that? That’s the wonky term for an important part of accountability: the size of the group that needs to be tested to get statistically sound results. In the ESEA, states get to choose the n-size. That means they get a lot of power to proclaim that they have too few students in a given subgroup to be tested. And that can let them off the hook for producing results.

Math exception. The legislation allows states to let 8th grade students to skip the mandated state test if they are taking advanced math. Instead, those students would take the appropriate end-of-course test for that course. In the past, some states have had to seek federal permission for this substitution, or they had to double-test those students.

Testing limits. States are allowed to set a cap on the amount of time students can be tested.

Testing-time transparency. Districts and schools must post, in a clear and easy-to-find place, a list of the tests that are required and how much time they take. This is an obvious byproduct of all the pushback on testing taking up too much instructional time.

High school test choices. States and districts can decide to use a “nationally recognized” test, such as the SAT or ACT, instead of year-end or end-of-course tests for accountability. Deciding to do so, however, comes with requirements that the chosen test is aligned to state standards, tests their “breadth and depth,” and meets other technical expectations.

Testing students who are advanced, and those who are behind. The bill makes clear that states can create computer-adaptive tests that measure above-grade-level and below-grade-level ability.

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