The 1061 pages of the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) address a wide range of topics that educators and policy makers need to understand. In many ways, the law appears much the same as the previous ESEA reauthorization, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). The requirements for common, challenging academic standards and for common assessments in certain grades and subjects remain the same. So do the requirements for standards and assessments for students with disabilities and English language learners. Within those pages, though, are noteworthy changes in the law relating to statewide accountability assessment.
Limits to Federal Authority
Some of the prohibitions in ESSA regarding what the Secretary of Education (and hence, the USDOE) can do relative to state standards and assessments are clearly a response to the Race to the Top (RTT) program. While that program didn’t specifically require adoption of the Common Core State Standards or membership in one of the state consortia created by the program, it would have been difficult for any state to qualify for RTT funding by pursuing a different set of standards and assessments to be implemented by multiple states. Such alternatives did not exist.
Prohibitions in the new law clearly prevent the Secretary from prescribing or providing incentives for particular aspects of states’ accountability systems. States still have to submit plans for peer review, adopt challenging standards, administer aligned assessments (using the same tests across a state), disaggregate data, identify low performing schools and intervene in some way, identify indicators of school performance, et cetera, et cetera. The specifics of the accountability systems, though—how these things are done—are left to the individual states. In short, states make their own decisions about how to use the assessment data to continue to meet the general requirements. Two of the more onerous features of NCLB and the RTT are modified: Adequate yearly progress (AYP) as defined and implemented by the federal government is out, and how states evaluate their teachers is again their business.
A few more assessment-related changes in ESSA seem particularly important. Among them, these three: multiple measures, interim assessments, and computer adaptive testing.
Both NCLB and ESSA stated that the assessments “shall…include multiple up-to-date measures of student academic achievement, including measures that assess higher-order thinking and understanding….” To some extent, this requirement of NCLB was ignored: States that administered all or predominately multiple-choice tests were probably not living up to the spirit of the provision. ESSA added to the statement above, “…which may include measures of student academic growth and may be partially delivered in the form of portfolios, projects, or extended performance tasks.” Those three approaches to performance assessment were not prohibited before; but by identifying them the new law provides better clarification of the intent of the multiple-measures requirement. Interestingly, the Senate version of the bill going into the conference committee process incorrectly characterized multiple measures as status or growth. Fortunately, the final bill corrected that error.
The ESSA allows the assessment requirement to be met via a “single summative assessment…or through multiple statewide interim assessments during the course of the academic year that result in a single summative score….” Given this flexibility and the specific mention of performance assessment alternatives, a state or consortium of states could be truly innovative by designing and implementing a two-component assessment system consisting of, for example, curriculum-embedded performance assessments and a shortened end-of-year summative assessment. Such an approach could address two common concerns about accountability assessment under NCLB—too much time spent on testing and negative instructional impact. The law goes even farther by providing an option that would allow as many as seven states to pilot innovative approaches to assessment.
Finally, ESSA allows computer-adaptive testing and the testing of out-of-grade content. The acceptance of adaptive testing, which tailors the items administered to individual students based on their ability level, means that if a state chooses an adaptive test, the requirement of the same test for all is dropped. In the earlier years of NCLB, adaptive tests were generally not approved, presumably because of the “same test“ requirement and issues around the alignment of tests to content standards. Interestingly, most tests administered in the spring of 2015 for the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (Smarter Balanced®) were computer adaptive. ESSA clearly legitimizes the use of such tests to satisfy its requirements.
One of the strengths of adaptive testing is that it can produce more reliable results than fixed tests for students who perform well above or below grade level. Allowing the use of items assessing out-of-grade content is important for achieving increased reliability for these students.
Overall Impact: More Autonomy for States
So the general impacts of the ESSA on assessment and accountability are:
- States have greater freedom to implement innovative assessment programs, addressing significant concerns about much of the large-scale testing of the NCLB era.
- Control of accountability systems is returned to the states.
It will be interesting to see how many states take full advantage of their new autonomy under the ESSA.
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