Education Policy

States Slow to Revamp Accountability Systems under ESSA

On the bright side, researchers noted in a new report, there's a move away from high-stakes consequences and toward formative rather than summative assessments. 

Even though the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act was supposed to address inadequacies of educational accountability related to federally-mandated standardized testing, a recent research project has found that, overall, states are still using the same large-scale student assessments that were in place before ESSA. For example, 44 states and the District of Columbia still give schools an overall score as a summative, accountability-based evaluation. States are also still using teacher evaluation systems that are "the same or slightly different versions" of the systems they had in place before ESSA.

However, researchers found, the greater emphasis on local control brought by ESSA has "led to some signs of change" they find encouraging, including these:

  • Some states now allow for "alternative student growth measurements" beyond test scores;
  • There's a movement toward multiple assessment tools, such as student learning objectives;
  • The number of states emphasizing value-added models (VAMs) based on student growth for teacher evaluations is slowly shrinking; and
  • There's a move away from high-stakes consequences and toward formative rather than summative assessments.

The project is described in "State-Level Assessments and Teacher Evaluation Systems after the Passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act: Some Steps in the Right Direction," a policy brief developed by three researchers in Arizona State University's Teachers College and published by the National Education Policy Center (NEPC), housed at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education.

To develop their findings, the researchers collected 51 plans from state education departments via a survey and from the U.S. Department of Education website. The survey also asked education department respondents to answer questions about their current teacher evaluation systems, including "perceived strength and weaknesses," value-added models and "consequences" tied to the evaluation systems. Departments in 37 states responded directly to these extra questions.

The report also offered some recommendations for policymakers as they sort out their accountability paths:

  • Take advantage of decreased federal control by formulating revised assessment policies that take into account the views of as many stakeholders as possible in order to "help remedy earlier weaknesses, promote effective implementation, stress correct interpretation and yield formative information";
  • Make sure that teacher evaluation systems rely on a balanced system of multiple measures, without too much emphasis being assigned to any single measure;
  • Emphasize the use of data as formative feedback in state systems, so that weaknesses in student learning can be "identified, targeted and used to inform teachers' professional development";
  • Require (and fund) research and evaluation of state assessment systems; and
  • Set goals and processes for reducing proficiency gaps as they're identified.

The policy brief was funded in part by the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice. It's openly available on the NEPC website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.