What Should Guide U.S. Ed. Dept.'s Peer Review of Assessments?

By Catherine Gewertz — August 09, 2013 2 min read
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You might have read on Politics K-12 this week that the U.S. Department of Education is seeking input as it reshapes its process for reviewing state assessments. This is worth watching, because the peer-review process is a powerful lever that Washington wields over the kinds of tests that students all over the country will take.

Outside the Beltway, most people don’t know that the federal government reviews state tests. But it’s true; the Elementary and Secondary Education Act conferred that power on the U.S. Department of Education, as EdWeek’s Michele McNeil explained in a recent story on the assessment peer-review process. She reported that the department had quietly suspended peer-review of state tests because it wanted to rethink the criteria it used.

Now it’s soliciting feedback on the process. In a post on its blog this week, the department asks for input by Sept. 30. Anyone wanting to weigh in can send an email to, with the phrase “Title I Peer Review,” in the subject line. Check the department’s blog post for some of the questions it would like answered as it reshapes its process.

The peer-review process will apply not only to the common-core tests being designed by the two federally funded state consortia (PARCC and Smarter Balanced; but I’m sure you’ve already got that memorized by now!), but to all tests. That means any state that chooses to withdraw from the consortia—or to remain a member but just use a different test—will also have to undergo the department’s scrutiny.

This is a potent kind of leverage. The criteria the department sets will shape tests nationwide. The department knows it hasn’t historically held states to a high enough bar on assessment, one of its officials acknowledged to me in a recent interview. Now it wants to change that, and will scrutinize new tests to make sure they reflect the skills the department feels are crucial for students.

Writing, for instance, is heavily emphasized in the common standards. “How could states say their test are aligned without a writing component?” the education department official told me. “We are afraid states [that create their own tests] will cut out writing to save money. And we want to signal clearly to states that certain things are critical: writing is critical. Critical thinking is important. And we expect this in their tests.”

The department’s messaging on what it will expect from states’ tests is just beginning. You can expect to see more of it through the collecting-input process, and through the public hearings it will hold on the peer-review process in the fall.

Stay tuned.

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