Policy & Research

States Adopting New Mindset on Assessments

Even as many states are backing away from high-stakes testing in math and English language arts that take place at the end of the school year, that doesn't necessarily mean they're "backsliding," according to a new report from Bellwether Education Partners. Rather than "rolling back" advancements in test quality, accessibility and rigor under the weight of political pressures or demands for reductions in time spent on testing, some states are reforming their approach to assessment in innovative ways.

The new report from Bellwether, a nonprofit that does research and consulting in education, identified four "example" areas where states are doing "promising work."

Interim assessments for accountability as a replacement to summative testing. Because these are shorter and easier to integrate into daily classroom activities, the report explained, interim assessments eliminate "weeks of pretest preparation" and the "long period of 'testing mode'" that surfaces near the end of the school year. However, authors Bonnie O'Keefe and Brandon Lewis noted, there are risks with this approach. For example, if states begin trying to influence "curriculum, scope and sequence," that could end up forcing schools to "reshape the pacing and ordering of classroom curriculum to align with the tests," thereby rankling local control proponents. Embedding more flexibility into the process could generate results that couldn't be compared across schools or districts because the amount of instructional time would vary.

While this approach offers the potential to generate data that teachers could act on more regularly, the report pointed out that garnering success with the model would require states "to put some kind of stake in the ground around curriculum and sequencing, and work with districts and teachers to ensure that results are both useful and reliable."

Formative assessments to support instruction. States are offering guidance, buying resources and subsidizing the purchase of a "menu of assessment options," for instructional purposes. As the report laid out, "formative assessments are not separate from instruction, but are opportunities for students to practice what they have learned during commonplace classroom activities and opportunities for teachers to adjust their instruction based on quick analysis of student performance."

While a benefit of this approach is that the resources around assessment are meant to help teachers and school leaders improve instruction, the big risk is that those presumed beneficiaries may not trust any assessment resources that come from the state. Another possible obstacle: States have tight budgets, and they'll need to understand that committing funding to these assessments can't take away from investments needed for testing used in public reporting and equity monitoring purposes.

Creation of shared "item" or question banks. As the report stated, item banks aren't new to assessment; however, states are using them in new ways. Beyond the obvious "cost-sharing benefits," this model promotes higher-quality assessments and greater "interstate collaboration," even among states that have moved away from the consortium model of a Smarter Balanced or PARCC. An advantage to the shared item bank is that it enables states to maintain a level of "stability and comparability" in scores over time, even as the tests change. "For instance, if a former PARCC state uses enough PARCC items in its new test, it could establish links between the two tests that allow it to track growth trends over time," the report explained.

The risks to this approach are "few," the authors wrote. The bigger risk is "going it alone." The report cited the case of Tennessee, which "abruptly" left the PARCC consortium to develop its own assessment system. The result, TNReady, was costly ($130 million) and "plagued by years of technical problems and vendor failures" that have "negatively impacted" the usefulness of the test results.

Social studies and science assessments as sandboxes for innovation. These are two areas that are "mostly optional, costly" and don't typically count towards accountability ratings, the report noted. But they're also subjects that could act as a "laboratory of assessment innovation," since they're well suited for hands-on learning activities. Each subject area is handled separately in the report.

For science, the big story is adoption among some 40 states of either the Next Generation Science Standards or other standards inspired by the "Framework for K–12 Science Education," released in 2012 by the National Academies. "The primary tradeoffs in science assessment revolve around cost, technology and comparability," the report stated. While the components may "exist today" to create tests that combine video-game-like interactive capabilities with the reliability of standardized tests, those kinds of assessments are "likely still several years in the future."

Social studies assessment hasn't seen the big lift-off that science has. However, some progress is afoot. For example, eight states have adopted the U.S. Citizenship Test as a high school requirement, with mixed results. (Complaints center on students having to memorize "discrete facts" without "meaningful engagement" of the content and even arguments that the test contains errors of fact.) However, the authors suggested, without the pressure of public accountability, social studies could serve "as a testing ground for new kinds of performance-based tasks, growth models or class-embedded assessments."

The work of innovating in assessments "can be extremely difficult," the report concluded. Those states that embark on this journey should do so with "clear goals; a theory of action centered on equity and student learning; and realistic expectations for the substantial resources, capacity and time it takes to research, develop, implement and sustain a comprehensive system of high-quality assessments." Likewise, states shouldn't underestimate "the importance of proactive, clear communications" with those involved, including districts, teachers, families and political leaders.

"The State of Assessment: A Look Forward on Innovation in State Testing Systems" is openly available on the Bellwether website.

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