FairTest, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, has released an important brief, Assessment Matters: Constructing Model State Systems to Replace Testing Overkill. The new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which replaced No Child Left Behind last December, opens the possibility of experimentation with some softening of test-and-punish. There will be no quick turnaround, and it surely will not begin before a new President and new Secretary of Education take over in January. But as FairTest explains, under ESSA there is at least now a chance for states to begin experimenting with change.
FairTest shows how states can take advantage of an experiment—written into the Every Student Succeeds Act—to crawl out from under the avalanche of standardized testing into the sunlight of a program that is its exact opposite: schools’ evaluating students with portfolios of work created in their classrooms under the guidance of their teachers: “FairTest proposes a model system to maximize high-quality assessment within ESSA’s constraints… Unlike NCLB, which revolved around standardized test scores, the model begins with classroom-based evidence that emanates from ongoing student work. FairTest’s model is rooted in exemplary practice and a set of principles derived from decades of assessment reform efforts. The primary purpose of this innovative system is to support high-quality, individualized student learning. It is guided by teachers but substantially student controlled, with multiple ways to demonstrate learning… Districts or consortia of schools or districts, have the flexibility to ensure the structure and nature of their assessment systems address their local needs and challenges. This could range from assessments rooted in inquiry- and project-based learning, with extensive student choice, to more traditional curriculum, instruction and tests.”
The Every Student Succeeds Act’s “Innovative Assessment” pilot project allows for up to seven states to try out new testing models as a substitute for federally mandated annual standardized tests. Now this is sort of tricky, because there are all sorts of requirements that seem daunting: “A full new system must include English language arts (ELA) and math assessments in at least grades 3-8 and once in high school, plus three grades of science…. A pilot can start with a limited number of districts but must include a plan to become statewide in five years, though extensions are allowed… During the pilot period, the new assessments must also be comparable with current state tests. ESSA draft regulations list ways in which such comparability can be established. These include administering the state exam to all students in the pilot; or only to students in one grade each in elementary, middle and high school; or both the state test and the new assessment to a demographically representative sample of students in the pilot… or some other DOE-approved method… a state creates.”
In FairTest’s proposal, what is essentially an assessment system based on individual students’ learning portfolios could be made comparable from school to school and district to district through several methods—all with strengths and drawbacks that FairTest analyzes. Classroom teachers would evaluate students’ work but there could be an independent moderator who would re-score each student’s work according to scoring guides or rubrics. Or a state might use “anchor tasks and tests.” “In this procedure, the same performance tasks are administered to students across participating districts. While the new system is being built, all participating districts must administer the current state tests in at least some grades.” Or states might institute validation studies, perhaps every five years, to compare results across districts according to a standards-based definition of proficiency.
FairTest notes that the requirement for “comparability” in accountability systems will by its very nature pose a threat to education driven to a greater extent by students’ interests: “Comparability has value, but the great value of assessment is to enrich student learning. The dangers from comparability requirements could be lessened if districts are not forced to alter their local assessment scores to be comparable to state test results. However, as long as current standardized exams are falsely presented as the ‘gold standard,’ the problem will remain.”
New Hampshire has been experimenting in a small number of school districts with such an alternative assessment plan that it launched under conditions it applied for under a No Child Left Behind waiver. New Hampshire’s PACE program: “was designed to unite rich learning assessed locally with federal accountability requirements. It includes the state ELA and math tests administered once each in elementary, middle and high school; Common Tasks administered in the non-tested grades 3-11, plus science in three grades; local tasks; and an ‘Achievement Level Determination’… Local systems focus on multiple assessment tasks made by district teachers plus items from… (a) bank (of educational tasks created by experienced teachers). These are scored locally. Teachers across districts re-score samples for training purposes.” FairTest’s report explains New Hampshire’s program in detail along with its strengths and weaknesses and provides several additional examples of experiments in alternative assessment.
FairTest recognizes that our society will not immediately be able to reject test-and-punish and move to an ideal new system. Advocates must be prepared to take the long view and also to realize that while we may in the short run be able to reduce standardized testing, it will take time to help our society imagine a system less reliant on the kind of quantifiable test score data our politicians have come to trust: “If the next U.S. Secretary of Education understands the damage done by NCLB’s focus on testing and wants to repair it, states could have the flexibility to move in the best possible direction. It will be up to assessment reform activists to persuade the new president to appoint a secretary who understands what is at stake. At the same time, parents, teachers, administrators, students, school boards, and other reform advocates will have to pressure their states and districts to take advantage of their new opportunities.”