High-Stakes Testing

Feds Finalize Assessment Parts of ESSA

Six weeks before it hands over the reins to a new leadership, the Obama administration has issued the final word on assessments in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Months before President Obama signed ESSA into law last year, the U.S. Department of Education had issued a new "Testing Action Plan" that called for "fewer and smarter assessments." The new ESSA rules on testing specifically found common agreement among the committee that drafted the regulations earlier this year, according to coverage by Politico, a media company focused on politics.

In a summary of the final regulations the department stated that the rules are intended to make sure states "administer high-quality, annual assessments that are worth taking" and that "provide meaningful data about student success," while at the same time encourage states and districts to use innovation in their testing.

As Secretary John King explained in comments prefacing a White House "convening" on "Better, Fewer and Fairer Assessments," this morning, "When done poorly, testing can become a costly distraction, consuming an excessive amount of valuable instructional time while only asking low level question that require just memory and not demonstration of real understanding." Under the new regulations, he added, "States have more flexibility than under No Child Left Behind in designing their assessment systems while maintaining important protections to preserve students' civil rights, including students with disabilities and students who are learning to speak English."

The final rules encourage the department to grant "innovative assessment demonstration authority" to up to seven states during an "initial demonstration period of three years," as long as those states "continue to meet the requirements of Title I." (Title I provides additional financial aid to districts and schools with high percentages of students from low-income families.) One ESSA document specifically references support for "innovative assessment systems" that may use "cumulative year-end assessments, competency-based assessments, instructionally embedded assessments, interim assessments or performance-based assessments." The demonstration period may also be extended to five years and an additional two years beyond that if needed in order to scale the assessment system statewide.

Another change that surfaced in the final rules is a rework on how states handle the use of alternate testing to streamline the criteria. As Politico explained, typically, those have been used with students who have major cognitive disabilities. ESSA imposes a 1 percent cap on the number of students who qualify for those assessments in any given subject; above that cap, states must request a waiver. While the draft rules stipulated that states must monitor districts that exceed the cap as well as those "that significantly contribute to a state's exceeding the cap," the final rules crank back on that expectation and tell the states to focus only on those districts exceeding the cap. The goal, according to the summary: to ensure the waivers "are reserved for exceptional situations" and that the waiver requests share "transparent state-level information on the number and percentage of students, including by subgroup, taking the alternate assessment."

A third area of variation between the draft and final rules addresses the assessments of Native American students, to clarify the use of native language assessments in a dedicated school or program. The earlier draft required those students to be tested for English language proficiency by the end of eighth grade. The final rule says states can administer assessments in Native American language to those students in any subject until the students are in high school.

Although ESSA promotes the use of computer-adaptive testing, which can provide a more precise assessment of a student's ability with fewer questions, the topic of eliminating unnecessary testing gets only a single mention. There, the new regulations state that if a student is taking an advanced math class in eighth grade, he or can take the assessment typically given to a high school student enrolled in a comparable class, as long as the state uses end-of-course tests in high school and the eighth grade curriculum is aligned with that course.

"States can go beyond the multiple choice and short answer questions at the end of the school year that are so familiar to all of us," said King. "Using technology the experts in this field are making it possible for test questions to be more like real-world tasks, more like what our students are asked to do in college and on the job, solving problems and applying their knowledge to unique situations. Who knows? Students may even like taking these new types of assessments, especially if they provide students immediate feedback and empower them to take more control over their own learning."

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