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Rules Proposed for ESSA's Innovative Assessment Pilot

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The Every Student Succeeds Act was supposed to help states move on from the No Child Left Behind Act, in part by offering fewer and better tests. And to help states with the "better" part of that equation, the new law allows them to try out competency based assessments and performance tasks through an Innovative Assessment pilot. The goal is to experiment with new forms of testing on a small scale that can eventually be used statewide. 

So how exactly will that pilot, which is open to up to seven states, work initially

The U.S. Department of Education Wednesday sketched some preliminary rules of the road ("draft regulations," in federal speak) on that subject. They address, among other things, what states need to do to be ready to apply for the pilot, and how states can figure out if these brand-new tests are "comparable" to their state assessments. (Fact sheet on all this here, and more on the specifics below). 

Separately, but at the same time, the department also officially released its proposed assessment regulations for ESSA, which actually were hammered out during a negotiated rulemaking process earlier this year. They touch on computer-adaptive tests, how tests for English-language learners and students in special education should work, how high schools can offer local assessments instead of state exams, how advanced math testing for 8th graders should work, and more. 

And if the official Federal Register version of these broader assessment rules makes your eyes glaze over, no worries. We wrote a cheat sheet on the assessment rules which you can check out here. 

Here's the big-picture take on both pieces—the negotiated rules and the innovative assessment pilot—from U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King, Jr.

Essentially, he's saying that the department is trying to walk a delicate line here, between giving states room to try new things and getting rid of redundant tests, while also making sure that provisions aimed at equity for all kids are preserved.  

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"Our proposed regulations build on President [Barack] Obama's plan to strike a balance around testing, providing additional support for states and districts to develop and use better, less burdensome assessments that give a more well-rounded picture of how students and schools are doing, while providing parents, teachers, and communities with critical information about students' learning." King said in a statement. 

King is doing a round table with teachers on testing Wednesday.  You can watch it here

Innovative Assessments

As we explained in this cheat sheet on the Innovative Assessment pilot, the flexibility is aimed at helping states "test drive" the next generation of assessments in a handful of districts, before going statewide with it. The pilot builds on work in New Hampshire, which is trying out a new form of performance assessment in a small number of districts

Importantly, ESSA already has a ton of requirements around the pilot, aimed at making sure the tests are of high-quality and can gauge how all different types of students learn. Specifically, ESSA calls for states to make sure their tests: are valid and reliable, can be compared district to district and to the state assessment, are tested on a group of students that has similar demographics to the rest of the state, and can eventually be scaled statewide.  

Adding Clarity

The proposed regulations add some new information and clarify a few things, according to department officials. For instance:

States could pick a grade or subject. The draft regulations make it clear that states that want in on the pilot don't have to come up with a new system for every subject and every grade, like New Hampshire is doing. They can do that, of course. But they can also go for something more limited, using a more innovative format just for science tests, for instance, or just for 3rd grade math, or just for all their middle school tests. 

The goal is one system eventually. The draft regulations make it clear that states are supposed to come up with one system that can eventually be scaled statewide, even though two different systems could exist in the state for quite a while, up to seven years under the law. That is in the law already, but the proposal underscores it. 

Districts could try a handful of schools at first. The proposed regulations would allow states to try out a new innovative assessment in part of a district to begin with—it doesn't have to be all at once everywhere. That would mean that if, say, New York City wanted to be part of the pilot, it could do so just in a handful of schools at first, instead of all 1 million students at once. 

Comparability. The draft regulations also make some proposals on a tricky part of the pilot: what exactly it means for tests to be "comparable." This can be a really hard thing to prove. In fact, Nebraska used to do local tests under the previous version of the law, No Child Left Behind, but the state stopped in part because it was so hard to meet NCLB's "comparability" bar.

The department essentially wants to give states four options to show that these new systems produce comparable results. They could:

  • Keep giving the state test once in each grade span where there is an innovative test, like New Hampshire is doing.
  • Keep giving the state test in certain grades, alongside the "innovative assessment." But states wouldn't have to give both tests to everyone; they could save the state test just for a representative group of kids.
  • Have a lot of the same questions or items on both the state test and the "innovative test."
  • Come up with something equally rigorous.

Those options all are intended to link up with the state assessment, which is arguably the test states are trying to move on from with this innovative pilot. Department officials, though, noted that ESSA says these local, innovative tests need to be comparable to the one the rest of the state takes. Notably, the department isn't sure if this was the right way to go on comparability and is specifically looking for feedback here from experts. 

Additional Proposals

Selection criteria. The department lays out a bunch of criteria states will be evaluated on in their innovative pilot applications. States will have to write a narrative to show where they hope this new assessment system will take them; show that their plans have support from the field and that educators have the capacity to implement them; describe their budget and timeline; explain how they plan to evaluate and keep improving their systems; and detail their plan to support teachers and students in using these new tests. These "selection criteria" will help the department figure out which states are ready to go on the pilot and which still need to think some things through. And if more than seven states apply, it could help officials figure out who is most ready to go. 

No planning year. Some folks had suggested that the department might want to give states a planning year before they dive right into the pilot. That's not in this proposal, in part because the department wants states to be ready to participate when they apply. The department will provide help and assistance for states that aren't quite ready, but want to think through their options. 

Peer review. One wonky but important point: The tests that states develop through the pilot will eventually have to go through the rigorous federal peer review process. At the outset, states will be evaluated on their plans. States don't have to submit their actual testing systems for peer review until they are ready to take them statewide, so they could have up to seven years to prepare for the final process. 

And a lot is still to be determined. The proposed regulations don't lay out things like a timeline for applications, for example. That will be decided later, probably by the next education secretary and their team. 

Feedback: Got a take on either the "innovative tests" proposed rules or the general regulations on tests? You have 60 days to comment on them. 

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