O’Keefe & Lewis: New Report Shows 4 Ways States Can Innovate and Improve Their Exams — Even Without Joining ESSA Pilot Program

Last week, the U.S. Department of Education approved proposals from Georgia and North Carolina to pilot innovative models of student testing. When the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) authorized its special program for innovative assessments, many states expressed excitement and interest. But more than a year and a half after the Department of Education started accepting applications, Georgia and North Carolina are only the third and fourth states to take advantage of the program. Does that mean that innovative assessments are dead in the water?

No. Exactly the opposite.

Louisiana, New Hampshire, Georgia and North Carolina are just one part of a larger group innovating behind the scenes, building innovative assessment systems that look beyond end-of-year reading and math tests and disrupting stereotypes about standardized tests. States leading the field know that cutting tests indiscriminately due to political backlash leaves students with exams that are less useful and of lower quality, teachers without good information about their students and the public with less reliable and transparent information about how historically underserved students are faring in school.

In our new report, “The State of Assessment: A Look Forward on Innovation in State Testing Systems,” we highlight a few promising paths that states can take to continue innovating and improving their tests, often without the need for special federal permission:

● Shorter tests throughout the year: States have the option to replace their end-of-year exams with assessments administered over the course of the year. This option could offer teachers earlier feedback on student performance, save districts money on purchasing their own interim tests and eliminate the end-of-year testing block that can take over school buildings. States like Nebraska, Louisiana and North Carolina are moving toward this model, but the idea has been slow to take hold, in part because administering tests in smaller doses during the year would be a big logistical shift for states and could shape curriculum and instruction in unintended ways, forcing teachers to cover content in a different order or pace.

● Formative assessments to support instruction: Not every test a state gives has to be for the purposes of public reporting or accountability. More states are administering low-stakes assessments designed only to support teaching and learning. States can offer optional resources or a menu for supports for schools to choose from. This kind of work tends to fall outside states’ typical assessment purview, so it will be important for states to show that these resources really can support instruction, with no strings attached. For example, Michigan’s Formative Assessment for Michigan Educators program supports and coaches local cadres of educators to focus on better classroom assessment practices.

●  Flexible collaboration and shared item banks: Developing a large-scale assessment is an expensive endeavor. By sharing test development responsibilities and high-quality test questions, states can benefit from one another’s knowledge and share costs. New Meridian, which grew out of the PARCC consortium, is an example of a new model of interstate collaboration, in which states can license pieces of PARCC for their own tests but make individual decisions about test design.

●  New science and social studies exams: When states are looking to cut back on assessments, science and social studies tests often end up on the chopping block. But these subjects have high potential to be laboratories of innovation and are especially well-suited to hands-on, performance-based testing or interactive, simulation-based computer assessments. New Hampshire includes science tests in its innovative Performance Assessment of Competency Education program, which intersperses traditional tests with teacher-designed performance assessments. Students can be asked to design a lab experiment or perform hands-on science and engineering tasks.

None of these ideas are one-size-fits-all, and there are considerable financial commitments, work and risk involved in any innovative endeavor. But those costs may be worthwhile if they can measure learning and help teachers improve outcomes for students along the way.

So while only a few states get the official “innovative” label, all the states profiled in our report highlight promising advancements in assessments that can benefit students, advance equity and improve teaching and learning — if the right tests are put to use in the right ways.

Bonnie O’Keefe is an associate partner with Bellwether Education Partners in the Policy and Evaluation practice area. Brandon Lewis is an analyst at Bellwether Education Partners. Previously, he was an education policy manager with the National Urban League, where he worked to shape the league’s educational equity agenda and analysis of the Every Student Succeeds Act.

Disclosure: Bellwether Education Partners was co-founded by Andrew Rotherham, who sits on The 74’s board of directors.

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