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ESSA: An opportunity to improve assessment

States should replace standardized tests with educationally superior forms of evaluation

The damage to teaching and learning caused by over-reliance on standardized tests is widely acknowledged. It includes narrowed curricula, teaching to the test, and one-size-fits-all instruction. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) offers a significant opportunity for states and districts to revamp their assessment systems.

Unfortunately, few states plan to replace standardized tests with educationally superior forms of evaluation. However, many are eliminating the bulk of No Child Left Behind-style punitive sanctions. This provides an opening for districts to stop teaching to standardized tests and adopt assessments that support more high-quality, in-depth and engaging learning.

In contrast to NCLB, ESSA requires assistance instead of punishment for low-scoring schools. When states remove sanctions, educators need not fear putting their students, schools or careers at risk if they do not focus narrowly on raising test scores. This makes it easier to cut back district-mandated testing, including computer-based packages. That’s what some districts across the nation are doing, including San Diego and Sacramento, California; Santa Fe and Las Cruces, New Mexico; and Lee County, Florida.

Simultaneously, districts can advance educator-made, student-focused performance assessments. To begin, administrators, in collaboration with educators and communities, can ask: What is most important for students to learn? How do students learn best? How can assessment strengthen teaching?

Research has consistently shown that public school stakeholders want a wide range of outcomes. From civic engagement to critical thinking, health to arts, most goals cannot be measured by standardized tests. (See for example, Grading Education by Richard Rothstein.)

Results from the New York Performance Standards Consortium show that extensive use of performance assessments strengthens student engagement and outcomes. It also reduces discipline problems and teacher turnover. (For more information, see http://www.performanceassessment.org.) Compared to existing tests and computer-based packages, teacher-led assessing can reduce costs in the long run, improve professional learning and school communities, and strengthen outcomes.

This is not to say the road is easy. But experience from across the nation, dating back to the 1990s, demonstrates educators can rise to the occasion. Teachers need sufficient time to collaborate, across grades, subjects and schools. They need to learn from existing options that could be adapted to meet goals. Nebraska did this before NCLB implementation made its statewide system of educator-developed local assessments untenable. (See Reclaiming Assessment by Chris Gallagher.) Students will have to adapt to more complex goals and learn to take responsibility for self-directed projects.

If a state decides to overhaul its system by participating in the ESSA innovative assessment program, then districts could enjoy a sharp reduction in state-mandated tests and greater support for re-shaping assessment. A state system of varied local assessments is possible under ESSA. (FairTest’s report, Assessment Matters, shows how such a system can be built; see http://www.fairtest.org/assessment-matters-constructing-model-state-system).

New Hampshire provides one important model as it combines a few grades of state testing, common performance tasks across participating districts, local tasks, and teacher evaluation of each student’s overall work for the year. If districts take advantage of lowered accountability sanctions to implement better student assessments, that effort can also lay the groundwork for building new statewide systems.

In this post-NCLB era, districts have a new opportunity to build assessment systems that enrich teaching and learning. A great deal of knowledge already exists. District administrators should lead principals and teachers in developing new systems. -

--Monty Neill, is executive director of FairTest.org.