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Trump Education Dept. Hits the Start Button on Innovative Tests

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State education leaders: Thinking about applying for the Every Student Succeeds Act Innovative Assessment pilot? You've got until April 2 to get your application in, according to an advance notice released Tuesday by the U.S. Department of Education. And states interested in applying are encouraged to let the department know within 30 days from Wednesday, although that's not a must.

So what, exactly, is the Innovative Assessment pilot?  ESSA requires states to test students using the same test in grades 3-8 and once in high school, but it also paves the way for new kinds of assessments. Under the law, the secretary can allow up to seven states—or groups of states—to try out new kinds of tests in a select number of districts, with the goal of eventually taking them statewide. The pilot was inspired by previous work on performance assessment in New Hampshire, thanks to a waiver from the previous version of the law, the No Child Left Behind Act. 

At least three states—Georgia, Hawaii and New York—expressed formal interest in the pilot in ESSA plans they submitted to the Education Department. And Colorado passed a law calling on its state education agency to seek the flexibility.

But Lillian Pace, the senior director of national policy at KnowledgeWorks, which supports state and federal policymakers interested in personalized-learning systems, isn't necessarily expecting a flood of applications.

"I wouldn't expect to see seven strong applications for states that are ready to go by April," Pace said. But the release of the application will provide a starting point for "a really robust and serious conversation about how to get another round ready" once the feds open up these new forms of testing to more states.

So why will there probably be very few applications, at least at first? The pilot may be appealing to states that want to move towards new, more project-based forms of assessment. But ESSA includes a lot of restrictions that make participation a challenge, including requirements that states try out the new assessments with a broad cross-section of students, make sure they are comparable to other state tests, and eventually take them statewide. At this point, participation in the pilot doesn't come with any additional money. So states will have to figure out how to do all those tricky things on their own dime.

What will the application process look like? States can get the most points—up to 40—for providing a narrative overview of their project, including an explanation of how the new system will support high-quality instruction. States also get 15 points for prior experience in using the type of outside-the-box assessment that it would like to expand through the pilot. States can also get 15 points for providing an appropriate timeline and budget. In addition, 25 points are available for supports from educators, students, and parents. Finally, 15 points are available in the application for states to continuously improve and refine their systems.

Here's a handy chart breaking this down, courtesy of KnowledgeWorks:

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