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Inside New Hampshire’s Innovative Push to Change the Way We Test Students

By Mark Keierleber | August 10, 2015

This is one in a series of articles profiling New Hampshire’s education system ahead of the August 19 NH Education Summit, hosted by The Seventy Four and sponsored by the American Federation for Children. Read the complete series here, and be sure to visit The74Million.org on Aug. 19 for live Summit coverage, featuring conversations with Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Carly Fiorina, Bobby Jindal, John Kasich and Scott Walker. More info: EdSummits2015.org
While schools across the state handed out the standardized Smarter Balanced exams for the first time this spring, students at four New Hampshire school districts took a pass.
No bubble tests. No outrage.
Instead, about four percent of the state’s student body took locally developed exams that included a series of hands-on tasks. In some cases, the exams took several days to complete.
Federal education officials didn’t grant the school districts a waiver from federally required tests, a hot issue as Congress works to renew No Child Left Behind. The New Hampshire experiment also took place during this spring’s opt-out movement when parents and students boycotted the standardized tests in some states en masse,  saying they were too difficult and provided little gain to student learning.
The New Hampshire competency tests were a pilot program affecting only about 800 students but they came with an accountability nod from the U.S. Department of Education earlier this year. The program could have a major influence on the way tests are used to hold schools accountable for student learning and teacher effectiveness.
The alternative approach, called the Performance Assessment of Competency Education, allows tests that more closely reflect students’ day-to-day work to be used to meet state and federal proficiency requirements.
Paul Leather, New Hampshire’s deputy education commissioner, said they’ll know how well it worked after state and district officials meet over the next few weeks to mull over the results.
Valerie McKenney, the superintendent of the Epping School District, one of the four pilot districts, is optimistic. Because the test results appeared on students’ report cards, McKenney said they provided meaningful feedback to students, parents and educators.
With traditional standardized tests, students know their scores won’t “impact their life in a real way,” said McKenney.  Under the pilot program, test scores are “a real grade on a real assignment, but it also gets used in a set of data to see how the school and district is meeting the standards.”
Nearly a decade ago, New Hampshire became the first state to require high schools to award course credit based on the mastery of course concepts — not the number of hours students spent sitting at a desk.
Previously, students who received a D-minus in their classes got the same diploma as honor students. Now, “That’s not good enough in New Hampshire,” McKenney said.
The PACE pilot is the state’s attempt to extend a similar approach to annual testing. In 2012, the New Hampshire Department of Education invited all school districts to participate in the pilot, and Sanborn Regional, Rochester, Epping and Souhegan School Districts agreed to play along.
Four additional districts will participate this upcoming school year, and pending approval, even more the year after that.
The four districts distributed the Smarter Balanced statewide assessment to one elementary class, one middle school class and one high school class — reducing the total number of standardized tests from seven to three. Students who didn’t take the statewide assessment alternatively completed the competency tests in English, math and science created by the school districts and approved by the state education department.
An English assessment for middle schoolers, for example, required students to submit research papers to prove they can collect and present information from multiple sources. In seventh grade math, students were given information about how to hire a bus company for a field trip, McKenney said. Based on criteria, they had to determine which company offered the best deal.
Each school was required to administer a common performance assessment in order to maintain consistency across the four districts.
Sanborn Regional School District Superintendent Brian Blake said the tests at his district provided a fair distribution of scores although the implementation was “a big nut to crack.”
“The assessments were rigorous enough that not all the kids scored at the highest levels that we would have liked them,” he said. “I think the information that we can provide parents and our students about their learning is so much more in depth.”
If the competency-based tests progress beyond the two-year pilot, the state education department’s biggest obstacle is yet to come: Statewide implementation.
The first four school districts to create the tests volunteered for the pilot but they had to roll up their sleeves to get the work done, said Scott Marion, associate director of the New Hampshire-based Center for Assessment. The center works with about 30 states and school districts to develop large-scale assessments and approaches for teacher evaluation.
“If you’re not willing to do that, this isn’t the right project for you,” he said.  
But still, Marion said he expects to see other states follow New Hampshire’s lead, especially if Congress reauthorizes No Child Left Behind with a current provision allowing for more statewide accountability pilot programs.
First, districts would have to develop their own system of competency-based education, Blake said, because that serves as the basis for the assessments.
Marion said further expansion wouldn’t be a bad thing because of the hard feedback the tests could provide teachers.
“If in my district I continually get told that I’m holding kids to lower expectations than other districts, I’m going to take that really seriously,”  he said. “This is real accountability as far as I’m concerned.”
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