The past 15 years have seen a lot of changes in statewide accountability testing. The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) increased federal control over state assessment programs and increased stakes associated with test results. The Obama administration’s Race to the Top program further raised the stakes by incentivizing the adoption of common college-readiness standards and assessments and the significant weighing of student test results in teacher evaluations.
With so much importance attached to “NCLB testing,” districts increased their use of interim tests for a variety of purposes, including growth monitoring and “early warning” to identify students and curricular areas needing attention before end-of-the-year state testing. Add to that mix regular classroom testing, and we have a situation that has raised a lot of concern in education circles and in public commentary. Parents, educators, and policy makers are identifying over-testing of students and associated test-prep activity as excessively infringing upon instructional time.
Research results have shown that, on average, a student can be expected to take well over 100 tests from “external” sources during his/her pre-college years. Most of these are interim assessments; of course, teachers’ end-of-unit or end-of-marking period tests are a form of interim assessment, too. And tests devised by teachers (often using items or item clusters they select from vendors’ item banks) are certainly the ones most aligned to the curriculum. Clearly, to reduce the amount of student testing, it would be logical to cut back on interim tests that are duplicative. Besides, state summative assessments are not going away, as affirmed by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). What’s different is that the new law leaves it to the states to determine the details of their accountability systems—i.e., how they use the assessment results—and it allows greater flexibility regarding the assessment program designs.
What can we expect to see?
- More autonomy for states—Of the two large multi-state consortia, only Smarter Balanced® allowed individual states to choose their own assessment contractors. However, PARCC® is now allowing its test content to be used by states that are not using the intact PARCC tests. As a result, more states or small state consortia will design their own tests and choose their own contractors.
- State interim assessments used for accountability—The ESSA allows the results of statewide interim assessments to be combined to produce a single summative score.
- Increased use of the SATs and ACTs—This practice has already satisfied federal requirements at the high school level.
- Increased use of technology—Despite challenges in the early years of online high-stakes testing, this is the future—of testing and education generally.
At the June 20–22 National Conference on Student Assessment in Philadelphia, ESSA flexibility with respect to next-generation state assessments was widely discussed. While there was a general spirit of optimism, several sessions made it clear that innovative programs are not slam dunks—requirements for technical quality and comparability of results across schools in a state pose significant challenges for designers of new state programs.
What can we hope for?
- Briefer end-of-year, summative state assessment components—If interim tests contribute to accountability, end-of-year measures can be shorter, efficient, computer-delivered tests.
- Curriculum-embedded performance assessments—If state interim assessments use the same kind of efficient, computer-delivered tests as the end-of-year tests, then they will be just more testing of foundational knowledge and skills. That would be going in the wrong direction. The ESSA provides states an opportunity to do what the Smarter Balanced and PARCC consortia may have originally intended but didn’t accomplish—use extended tasks as integral parts of instructional units or projects. Such tasks would not be “additional testing,” but would be seamless parts of classroom instruction. Results of teacher scoring could then serve two purposes: They would be immediately available for instructional feedback and auditable for state accountability use.
The two-component system described above can strike a balance between on-demand, highly secure, efficient statewide testing and local assessment, as well as a balance between attention to foundational knowledge/skills and deeper learning. The future of statewide testing can be bright as long as we take advantage of the opportunities afforded us by the ESSA.
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