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Innovative Assessments: Widening the Horizon

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This post is by Adriana Martinez, the Innovation Program Manager at CCSSO.

For years, states have taken the lead in exploring how to create better ways to assess students. In 2016, New Hampshire launched the Performance Assessment for Competency Education (PACE) pilot that served as a model for the country on innovative assessment.

Now, under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), states have the opportunity to innovate in assessment in different ways, including through a new innovative assessment pilot. Under the Innovative Assessment and Accountability Demonstration Authority, in Section 1204 of the new federal law, states can apply to develop a new type of assessment. To date, four states--Arizona, Hawaii, Louisiana and New Hampshire--notified the U.S. Department of Education their intention to apply for the pilot. Several other states are continuing to work with stakeholders on the best ways to create better assessments for their students and will later see if these opportunities align with this new pilot program.

Outside of the pilot program, states can innovate in other ways and through different types of assessment, such as those that play an integral role in teaching and learning. If we broaden our understanding of assessment, then we can broaden the opportunities to innovate in assessment in order to transform teaching and learning for all students.

Expanding innovations in assessment of learning

Assessment of learning refers to summative tools that extract evidence of student learning, often in the form of quantitative data, which can be used to make inferences about the quality of public education systems at federal, state, district and school levels. Anything from the SAT, from a classroom test, to student portfolios fall under the category of summative assessment.

Most resources on innovative assessment focus on statewide assessment and accountability systems. Innovations in this space include options from through-course assessments to the use of performance assessments as part of a state's summative assessment system. Many of these options are allowable under ESSA, although some may require participation in the innovative assessment pilot. Many states will continue to use standardized assessments, but they're also exploring additional options to lead on innovative assessment.    

There exist richer opportunities to innovate beyond state assessment and accountability systems that provide greater flexibility, such as graduation requirements that include performance assessments, capstone projects, or portfolios. For example, Rhode Island includes performance assessments as part of their graduation requirements and Colorado includes both capstones and performance assessments as options under their graduation guidelines. Other states may choose to focus on strategies with low stakes. In the implementation of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), Kentucky's system of assessment includes a standardized summative assessment, which works in tandem with curriculum-embedded and through course performance assessment tasks that are implemented at the classroom level. The state collects and vets locally developed tasks, which are housed in an item bank. These tasks are not used for statewide summative determinations, but to support the instructional shifts in practice necessary to successfully implement the NGSS.

Maximizing the potential in assessment for learning to drive innovation

Rethinking summative assessments can help states tackle challenges they face, such as over-testing or incentivizing problematic behaviors, but these do not always directly impact teaching and learning. If states want to improve instruction and student learning, then they should shift their focus to assessment for learning. This refers to formative assessment, a process used by teachers and students while teaching and learning is taking place. When used as part of system of assessments that include formal and informal formative assessment, curriculum-embedded performance assessments, project-based assessments, learning expeditions, etc., assessment for learning becomes a driver of innovation in a variety of ways:

  • Driving deeper learning outcomes: Many states expanded their vision for student success recognizing the importance of deeper learning outcomes (sometimes referred to as "transferrable skills," "21st century skills," or "soft skills"). Virginia's Profile of a Graduate provides an example of a state vision of student of success that elevates the importance of creative thinking, collaboration, and citizenship. Yet standardized tests generally cannot measure these skills, nor do they incentivize instructional practices that support them. To support deeper learning outcomes, Virginia is working with school divisions to provide professional learning for educators to develop and implement performance assessments that call for authentic demonstrations of learning that elicit evidence of deeper learning competencies.
  • Personalized learning: States that want to prioritize personalized learning must focus on formative assessment practices. Personalized learning calls on students to become active drivers of their learning instead of passive recipients of instruction (to learn more about personalized learning, check out CCSSO's resources available here). The formative assessment process asks students to develop an understanding of their own learning and their goals in order to grow, which is central to quality implementation of personalized learning. States that focus on building the capacity of educators to use the formative assessment processes are also encouraging the development of learner agency. Oregon's resource bank on assessment elevates formative assessment through projects such as Oregon's Formative Assessment for Students and Teachers (OFAST) and its online professional development modules.
  • Creating competency-based pathways: States are also taking action on competency-based education (CBE). In CBE environments, students advance through their learning by demonstrating mastery, rather than seat time (to learn more about competency-based education, check out this resource). A group of districts and schools, known as the Idaho Mastery Education Network, is working with districts to implement competency-based education and through that collaboration examining how to rethink assessment to create flexible pathways for students to more authentically demonstrate evidence of learning.

All of these examples are recent and we must recognize states still have a lot to learn about innovative assessment--what it looks like, how it impacts learning, and effective strategies for implementation. States leading on innovative assessment are actively exploring these questions. Districts, national organizations, research centers and other entities are also contributing to this national movement. The Assessment for Learning Project, for example, is working to examine and understand the role of assessment in new approaches to teaching and learning. 

High-Quality Systems of Assessments

Ultimately, states are not thinking about innovative as a way to change a single form of testing. Rather, they want to innovate in a system that balances different forms of assessment. We must anchor conversations about innovations in assessment in the context of quality systems of assessments, where we can broaden the value proposition of assessment (to learn more about quality systems of assessment, check out this new resource). These systems include statewide tests, which are a critical component, but they should also include other forms of summative assessments and should prioritize different forms of assessment that can directly impact teaching and learning. When taking a larger, systems-level approach to assessment, then we can see numerous examples on how states are leading on innovative assessment.

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