10 ways assessment reform can help guide a new era in education

States are challenged to find assessments that present an accurate picture of student learning in order to direct resources to those who need them most

The spread of the coronavirus transformed our education system overnight. With school districts completely caught off-guard by the speed and severity of the outbreak, the U.S. Department of Education announced flexibility for states to cancel their annual summative assessments and accountability ratings for the 2019-2020 school year.

As the start of a new school year rapidly approaches, it is still not clear what form schools will take. Prioritizing the creation of a healthy environment where students can continue to learn should be paramount. In this unpredictable environment, education leaders have expressed interest in assessment and accountability flexibility. However, as policy makers determine what that flexibility looks like, they should consider the consequences of pausing testing for another year.

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Now more than ever, states must find a way to assess student learning. Failure to capture where students are this fall and how they are performing relative to grade-level expectations at year’s end may result in an inability to direct resources to students who need it most, further exacerbating deep and long-standing inequities within our communities and school systems.

Calls to consider additional flexibility are warranted, but there are more constructive ways for policy makers to lead assessment and accountability reform. As such, here are 10 ways states and the U.S. Department of Education can expand learning opportunities and better serve the education community.

State policies

Invest in remote proctoring: It is likely that hybrid learning is here to stay, and educators may not be able to administer tests in the typical classroom setting. The transition to online proctoring offers a chance for educators to overcome the limits of in-person testing environments and address student learning needs with timely, accurate, and relevant student achievement data.

Build in equity and accessibility: Education leaders have an opportunity to refine how standardized assessments are used to address systemic inequities in learning opportunities. Assessment systems that provide cohesion across measurement, rigorous standards, and high-quality curriculum can create efficiencies that will enable teachers to spend more time engaging students and expanding instructional offerings that accelerate learning.

Support innovative assessment: Comprehensive assessment data must be available to teachers, students, and families. Districts can work with states to rethink how statewide summative test designs can also support instructional leadership, scaffolding, and differentiated pacing through competency-based or through-year assessment models.

Be intentional about growth and proficiency: States must consider how much growth is realistic over the course of next year and how to weigh proficiency and growth altogether. Students could return in the fall having lost as much as a year of learning, and state leaders should consider the fairness of using proficiency standards for accountability purposes. This does not mean that proficiency should not be measured or that the goal of reaching or exceeding proficiency should change, but rather that it will realistically take time to get students back on track.

Build transparency with seasonal learning trajectories: Interim assessments used to measure school effectiveness illustrate seasonal learning patterns attributed to the traditional school calendar. Using data patterns to explore student progress related to strategic inputs is one avenue for state leaders to build transparency, communication, and trust into their school systems within an evolving context.

Use long-term growth for school improvement goals: Student growth data is an important step in determining the impact of spring school closures on student achievement and identifying future interventions. Even though many states lack spring 2020 data, they can measure student growth over two years instead of one by using their spring 2019 and spring 2021 test data. The two-year approach is applicable for different growth models and can also be disaggregated by student subgroups, an important feature for understanding how the collective trauma of a global health pandemic affects different student communities.

Federal policies

Fund assessments aligned with distance and hybrid learning: States and districts can use next year as an opportunity to explore innovative assessment systems that meet the new bounds of distance and hybrid learning. In the wake of other disruptions to learning, researchers have discovered that innovation and stamina are key to getting students back on track and reaching their highest potential. Achieving a systematic approach to high-quality innovation requires targeted investments in infrastructure that supports distance and hybrid learning across the teaching, learning, and assessment systems.

Encourage research partnerships: The U.S. Department of Education can incentivize states to collaborate with research institutions that are identifying optimal methods for addressing the challenges of distance and hybrid learning. Statewide research partnerships are useful for rapid design, exploration, and innovative testing features that can eventually be scaled.

Refrain from providing blanket waiver opportunities for spring 2021 testing: While it is clear that the coronavirus will continue to impact schools into the 2020-21 school year, teaching and learning will still take place, and we should not assume now that schools will be closed in spring 2021. Blanket waivers from ESSA and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act are dangerous and unnecessary next year and beyond. The federal government should work with individual states to apply a continuum of targeted flexibilities regarding the accountability and assessment provisions, maintaining integrity to the spirit and intent of the law while also ensuring historically underserved students remain protected.

Incentivize reduction of test redundancies: The growing needs of students and inconsistent school environments require summative assessment to move closer to instruction. The federal government can elevate states whose assessment systems capture student learning over time, address federal accountability requirements, and are transparent for educators and parents.

A new path forward in education

The education system in the U.S. is on the edge of a precipice, and decisions made by policy makers today could affect the lives of generations of students across the country. Within the seemingly insurmountable challenge of reconsidering our traditional back-to-school routines lies an opportunity to reimagine systems of assessment and accountability. We can use this time to address long-standing educational inequities and remove systemic barriers that are inherent within our assumptions about measurement, achievement, ability, and schooling. By doing so, we, as an education community, can establish a new era for education instead of returning to business as usual.

About the Author:

Dr. Aaliyah Samuel has experience in policy development and implementation at the local, state, and national level. With expertise from early childhood through higher education, Aaliyah leads a team driving an ambitious state and federal education agenda focused on systems-level change. Prior to NWEA, Aaliyah was the Director of Education at the National Governors Association. In this role, she informed state policy agendas, assisted with developing cross systems approaches to create policy solutions to support children and families, and drove strategic planning efforts. Aaliyah holds an undergraduate degree from Tuskegee University, a master’s from University of South Florida, and specialist and EdD degrees from Nova Southeastern University. In 2019, she was appointed as a Fellow to the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University.

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