ESSA Innovation: How 2 States and Puerto Rico Aim to Transform the Way They Assess Student Learning

When students sit down to take a standardized test in reading, they’re often given a passage that has nothing to do with what they’re learning in the classroom. Such “content agnostic” tests, the theory goes, allow educators to drill down on students’ reading and writing skills — rather than their knowledge of a particular topic.

But John White, Louisiana state superintendent of education, sees things differently. To drive home his point that such tests are not as content-neutral as they seem, White pointed to the Mona Lisa as a potential topic on the traditional standardized reading test.

Louisiana Superintendent of Education John White (Credit: The 74)

“It may be true that in English class nobody studied the Mona Lisa, but it may also be true that a couple of kids have been to Paris to see the Mona Lisa and a couple of kids have parents who know what the Mona Lisa is and have talked to them about Leonardo [da Vinci],” he told The 74. “You have to imagine that there is a benefit to those students — and that’s well documented — who have background knowledge.”

To mitigate the unfairness to students, particularly children from low-income households, Louisiana has applied for a new program sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education. When lawmakers in Washington signed off on the federal Every Student Succeeds Act in 2015, they included an innovative assessment pilot program that allows states to experiment with new models in a subset of schools to gauge student learning outcomes using a method outside the statewide standardized test.

So far, Louisiana, New Hampshire, and Puerto Rico have submitted applications to the U.S. Department of Education to participate in the pilot — and they offer radically different approaches to measuring student outcomes.

In Louisiana’s application, officials outlined a plan to streamline the English and social studies assessments, allowing students to build upon the knowledge they gain in class. Meanwhile, New Hampshire aims to build on its work to scale up a “competency-based” assessment that requires students to demonstrate proficiency on a given topic before moving on to the next task. Puerto Rico, which is in the process of reforming its education system following Hurricane Maria, plans to adopt a “computer adaptive test,” in which question difficulty adjusts as students respond to questions.

Although the pilot received a lot of attention when lawmakers approved ESSA, a handful of states, including New York, have withdrawn their interest, Education Week reports. The initiative requires a lot from states, including a requirement that the exams be accessible for students with disabilities and English language learners, but it doesn’t come with any additional federal money.

Under the federal pilot program, approved applicants are given five years to develop their model, pilot the assessment in classrooms, and scale the reforms statewide.

Under the Louisiana plan, students would be assessed on the content they’ve covered in the classroom, rather than “content agnostic” passages selected at random. And instead of completing one big assessment, students would be tested several times throughout the course of the school year so educators can gauge progress in real time. The pilot would launch with high schools during the 2019–20 school year, and elementary school students would be brought into the fold in subsequent years.

Rebecca Kockler, Louisiana’s assistant superintendent of academic content, said a handful of districts rely on a shared curriculum that was developed at the state level, allowing for a set of knowledge and books that can be targeted for assessment.

“We’re just uniquely positioned right now to check this out and to see if this really is fair, to see if it really is a better way,” she said. “This is a pilot and we have a lot to learn, but we’re just committed to this because we feel like it’s the next step in innovation and building a system that we think is the most meaningful and the most coherent for our students.”

Robert Pondiscio, a senior fellow and vice president for external affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute education think tank, is among the education pundits cheering on the work in Louisiana. He called the Louisiana plan an “assessment holy grail.” Under the current testing system, he said in an interview, a weak understanding of content knowledge is perceived as poor reading skills. “In many places I suspect the problem is just a simple lack of background knowledge, not a reading issue at all,” he said.

It comes with little surprise New Hampshire has opted to participate in the pilot. In fact, education officials there take credit for inspiring the federal innovative assessment initiative in the first place. For the past several years, New Hampshire officials have been working to scale up a “competency-based” approach they call the Performance Assessment of Competency Education.

In 2015, federal officials awarded New Hampshire a waiver from the previous federal education law, No Child Left Behind, in order to pilot a competency-based model. Under that framework, students are required to demonstrate proficiency on a given topic before moving forward on the next task. The system, state officials explain in their application, allows educators to judge student growth based on outcomes rather than inputs like time spent in a class.

Frank Edelblut (Credit: NH Deptartment of Education)

“We know that student performance on a single end-of-year achievement test may not be indicative of actual learning and mastery of academic competencies,” Frank Edelblut, New Hampshire’s education commissioner, said in a media release. In contrast, the competency-based system offers students multiple opportunities to demonstrate what they’ve learned. Moreover, the application argues, once-per-year assessments fail to support a diverse student population.

In Puerto Rico, officials are implementing a new, sweeping education reform law as the island recovers from Hurricane Maria and a crippling financial crisis. Amid plans to close nearly 300 of the island’s 1,100 schools, educators are phasing in a new accountability system with a focus on improving low-performing schools. But the work predates the storm, said Julia Keleher, Puerto Rico’s education secretary. For more than a year, education leaders have been developing new strategies to collect student performance data and make the data more relevant for teachers.

Keleher said the assessment pilot provides an opportunity to test out alternative assessments that would “allow us to more quickly and more effectively adjust our instruction to the child’s needs.”

Julia Keleher (Credit: twitter.com/seceducacionpr)

The Puerto Rico plan would implement a computer adaptive test in 120 campuses that have historically performed at the bottom 15 percent of schools on standardized tests. Often, Puerto Rican officials argue in their application, students and educators in low-performing schools see standardized tests as a punishment, rather than as an instrument to measure growth and implement improvement strategies. A testing mechanism that adjusts to match student competencies would allow students greater opportunities to apply their obtained knowledge. Puerto Rico plans to implement its tech-driven testing system in the 2018–19 school year.

Computer adaptive testing, Keleher said, allows educators to better understand the topics students have mastered, rather than just their deficits. Using data to better understand individual students’ strengths, she said, will allow schools to identify and group students who need specialized instruction or children who may be ready for more advanced material.

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