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ESSA and Performance Assessments: Where States Go From Here

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This post is by Rafael Heller, principal policy analyst for Jobs for the Future.

Since the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) was passed, nearly a year ago, many in the education world have kept their fingers crossed and their eyes pinned to the horizon, anxiously waiting to see which states will make serious efforts to overhaul their school accountability systems. Now that No Child Left Behind's testing strictures have been loosened, K-12 leaders would seem to have a golden opportunity to pursue more sophisticated and useful ways of gauging student learning. But will they seize that opportunity, or will they play it safe, doubling down on multiple-choice tests even though they are free to pursue other measures of student progress, including high-quality performance assessments?

The challenge that confronts states today has little to do with the technical demands of designing and scoring performance tasks (which can include anything from research papers and capstone projects to oral presentations and debates). Nor should it be terribly difficult, technically speaking, to scale up such practices. For example, in the 1990s (before No Child Left Behind turned the assessment world upside down), states such as Kentucky, Vermont, and California made good progress toward building valid and affordable performance assessment systems on a large scale. And today, on-line sites such as the Performance Assessment Resource Bank make it easy to find well-designed classroom assignments, test prompts, scoring rubrics, learning progressions, and more.

No, the real challenge today has to do with the politics of assessment and accountability. The power to shape educational policymaking has been thrown open to all 50 states, and within each state many actors have their hands in decision making, from superintendents and governors to legislators, state and district boards of education, big-city mayors, university presidents, business leaders, teachers' unions, local philanthropists, community activists, and more.  

In short, states will have to get a lot of ducks in a row before they can make serious efforts to shift from an NCLB-style accountability system to one that emphasizes the use of high-quality performance assessments. And that will be no easy task, given today's ultra-polarized political climate.

Recently, the state of New Hampshire has attracted considerable attention for its success in cultivating a broad base of support for district- and teacher-led performance assessment systems. But many in the policy world are wondering whether other states will be able to follow suit. Will this sort of large-scale performance assessment turn out to be a rare bird, found only in the Granite State, or can it flourish in other parts of the country?  

And now for the hopeful news: judging by what I saw recently at Assessing for Deeper Learning: A Transformative Pathway to Prepare Virginia Students for the Future --a summit on performance assessment hosted by Jobs for the Future and the Virginia Department of Education held at the University of Virginia and attended by more than 400 educators from 85 districts--Virginia could be the next state to take flight.  

VA summit photo.jpg

More than 400 educators, school system leaders and policymakers across Virginia and throughout the country participated in a day-long summit at The University of Virginia in Charlottesville, VA, to discuss alternative assessments during the recent Assessing for Deeper Learning summit. 

As local officials freely acknowledge, their work has only just begun. In 2014, the Virginia legislature moved to eliminate a number of history, writing, and science tests in grades 3-8, and it required districts to replace them with locally designed alternative assessments. Since then, progress has been uneven, with some districts racing ahead to design and pilot new measures, while others have yet to move past the planning stages.

However, while it may be too early to say how things will play out, Virginia does seem well-positioned to succeed. At this point, the initiative has strong, bipartisan support from the legislature and the state board of education, as well as buy-in from the Governor, major business figures, higher education leaders, and others. The department of education has been careful to provide districts with technical assistance as needed, drawing upon local experts whenever possible. And perhaps most important, the work is proceeding on a timeline that is both realistic and flexible--while every district is expected to design and roll out its new assessments within five years, each is free to decide when to go slow and when to race ahead.

For all of us who are anxious to see states take advantage of the opportunity that ESSA provides to rethink assessment and accountability, Virginia bears close watching. It still has a long way to go, but for now, if you're looking for a good, strategically sound example of how to move this work forward state-wide, building strong political coalitions as well as grassroots support, here it is.

Photo by Jobs for the Future.

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