Minnich: Testing in Our Schools Needs to Evolve. Here’s How 3 States Are Trying Innovative New Approaches Under ESSA

On Dec. 10, in recognition of the four-year anniversary of the signing of the Every Student Succeeds Act, I participated in a discussion in Washington, D.C., to reflect on where we are now as a nation and the challenges and opportunities we have moving forward. The room included policymakers, journalists and education leaders. My main message to them: State accountability assessments need to evolve. We can do better.

Since the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002 and ESSA in 2015, testing has steadily increased in K-12 schools. Tests upon tests are administered to measure teacher performance, school performance, student achievement, student growth, college readiness and more. The intentions in most cases are good — it’s important to hold all students to the same high standards, provide teachers with data to inform instruction and support school improvement efforts.

However, as a result of all this testing, teachers and students spend valuable instructional time preparing for and taking more exams, which often provide educators, students and parents with a maze of data to navigate, combine and interpret.

State departments of education need a reliable system for assessing school effectiveness, and district leaders and teachers need similar information to inform how best to move students toward academic achievement. Traditionally, this information has been gathered through end-of-year tests that students spend several hours per subject each spring taking to show whether they’ve met the bar as defined by state standards.

Here’s the part that really needs to evolve: These tests are administered in the spring, but results are often shared with educators, parents and the community months later, when it is too late to be useful in the classroom. In most cases, that means teachers see results in the fall of the following school year, when students have already moved on to a different classroom in the next grade. In addition, the end-of-year test results mainly offer only one measure — proficiency — which answers just one question: Did the student meet the bar?

These tests don’t reveal how much within-year growth from fall to spring a student has made, nor do they show a teacher how far below or above grade level a student was, insights critical to understanding a child’s academic health. Many districts make up for this limitation by administering interim assessments to gather this valuable data. This means, however, that students are tested several times a year, and then again at year’s end. These systems are not integrated.

Within-year growth, which looks at the progress a student has made from fall to spring, is different from the kind of growth that most states have embraced in their ESSA plans. While states measure growth in a multitude of ways, most formulas are rooted in year-over-year changes in proficiency. By using new approaches to accountability assessment that gather data throughout the year, not just at year’s end, states will also be able to see how much academic growth occurred for each student during the school year, regardless of proficiency level. This promotes a more holistic and fair evaluation of school performance, especially for schools serving socially and economically disadvantaged students, who are more likely to enter the system several years behind. NWEA researcher Andy Hegedus validated this concern through a study released in 2018 that noted the adverse impact on low-income, historically marginalized students when proficiency is the only success measure.

When ESSA was passed, the federal government provided states with the opportunity to develop innovative assessment solutions. Yet exams remain largely unchanged. Five states, however — Nebraska, North Carolina, Georgia, New Hampshire and Louisiana — are leading the charge to explore alternative assessment opportunities.

At NWEA, we are partnering with Louisiana as well as a consortium of districts in Georgia to implement new approaches to assessment as part of this federal innovative assessment pilot program. We are also working with Nebraska on efforts to transition to a new approach to statewide assessment that combines within-year growth data and end-of-year data for a more complete picture of student academic health.

Ultimately, the evolution of state assessments will produce approaches that could well move the needle for kids and empower educators. Efforts to move in this evolutionary direction are already underway through NWEA’s partnerships with Louisiana, Georgia and Nebraska.

Here are the key goals of that work:

  • Maximize testing efficiency and classroom time with assessments that are given throughout the school year to reflect the progression of student learning (within-year growth) while contributing to the generation of end-of-year scores for accountability. Unifying state and district assessments in this way increases coherence, avoiding the problem of district assessments that feel disconnected from the end-of-year test and vice versa. It also eliminates the need for the big annual exam, reducing overall test time.
  • Provide timely, student-specific information to teachers so they can tailor their teaching for each student in order to address their particular needs within each grade-level standard. This might mean using technology to better understand how students are learning and growing, such as assessments that can adjust to offer a true measure of a child’s knowledge and ability; computer-based approaches that let students engage with questions in different ways, such as dragging and dropping content or highlighting text, to show knowledge that can’t be measured through multiple choice; and/or implementing performance tasks, which ask students to demonstrate what they have learned in a real-world situation, such reading a passage and then drawing a depiction of what it describes. These approaches result in more nuanced information about student performance within and across grade level during the school year, which in turn supports teachers in engaging students in deeper learning.
  • Accurately reflect school performance with assessments that show how much learning takes place in each school from fall to spring — data not available with traditional end-of-year exams that measure proficiency. This within-year growth data, considered alongside other measures, is critical to understanding how well schools are serving students. It reveals which schools need help the most (those with low achievement and low growth) and those that are excelling, even if their students are not yet proficient (those with low achievement but high growth).

With all that in mind, evolving state accountability assessments can’t be done overnight. It’s important to take the time to design innovative solutions differently, and from the standpoint of what’s in the best interest of the student, so these innovations can lead to improved teaching and learning. It requires the involvement of state and district leaders; teachers, parents and students; technical advisory committees; and research scientists who will conduct studies to ensure that new assessments not only are useful in the classroom but also pass muster when it comes to requirements for state assessments.

As we move forward, will there be bumps and challenges along the way? Of course. Change of this caliber is hard. With that comes skepticism, concerns and even fear — and that’s a good thing. We must remember, though, that the change will be worth it, because we must do better, and we can do better, for our kids.

Chris Minnich is CEO of NWEA, a not-for-profit provider of assessments that measure growth and proficiency. Previously, he served as executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers and directed the organization during its involvement in the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act in 2015. 

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