In April, we reported that the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) was disrupting the educational marketplace as states began to implement their plans and transition to new systems. Staffing cuts at the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education were also concerning educators and the industry as it might hamper the agency’s ability to effectively oversee ESSA’s implementation in schools.
There was also uncertainty about how the new law would redefine assessment once states began playing a greater role in creating testing materials as well as experimenting with new “innovative assessment pilots” funded by the federal government.
As we approach the first school year of full implementation of new ESSA accountability systems in nearly all states, where do we stand on the foregoing issues? Was the concern about a lack of oversight at the federal level unfounded or is there indeed a need for more guidance and accountability for states? Has the assessment landscape radically changed under ESSA?
Federal Oversight of ESSA
A hallmark of ESSA, in contrast to No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the previous federal education law, is the extent to which it limits the role of the federal government and gives the states more flexibility concerning school improvement and assessments. Under ESSA, states and local agencies have taken on more responsibilities and can now determine the state standards they want to adopt. However, as a recent Education Week article points out, “the U.S. Department of Education is still responsible for providing guidance, support and corrective action to the states.” Furthermore, the article explains, “the law does require that state standards be college- and career-aligned, that school turnaround approaches be evidence-based, and that academic goals be ambitious.”
Unfortunately, the earlier concern about the ability of the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education to effectively oversee ESSA implementation appears to have been valid. The Department of Education (DOE) has provided minimal guidance on how states should approach their new responsibilities. Some states’ uncertainty about their new role is evident in their vague accountability plans, while other states seem to have overstepped the bounds of the law’s provisions.
The article also points out that although all ESSA state plans were fully approved by the DOE within a few months, a number of the plans were not fully in compliance with law. These states either ignored the feedback from the federal government or responded by defending their plans’ interpretations of the law. ESSA, and the DOE, have not yet achieved the balance of “providing states leeway to innovate while offering sufficient regulatory guidance and support to ensure states comply with the law in full.”
Innovative Assessment Pilot
One of the goals of ESSA is to encourage states and districts to push the field of assessment forward through innovation. ESSA is trying to accomplish this under the auspices of the Innovative Assessment Demonstration Authority (IADA). Through an application process, the IADA authorizes states to run an innovative assessment pilot program. The program gives states the opportunity to test out new assessment systems in select schools before moving toward statewide implementation. States can apply independently or as part of a consortium of up to seven states. States can apply to receive authorization on an annual basis.
The hope is that the program will enable states to rethink their testing systems and develop new approaches to assessment that can be slowly implemented and assessed over time. And if they are successful, these approaches can then be shared with other states to improve assessments across the country.
Not many states have applied to the IADA program, as it comes with a lot of requirements and no federal funds. The first application process was held early last year, and New Hampshire and Louisiana were selected to run pilots. The second round was just completed. DOE Secretary Betsy DeVos recently announced that Georgia and North Carolina have been approved to try out new assessment methods for the upcoming school year.
Georgia will test two assessment systems. One is based on adaptive assessments, in which the test questions that are given to students are based on their previous answers. Georgia’s second pilot system is based on “real-time” information on student performance. The North Carolina pilot system develops a customized “route” based on an individual student’s prior answers on formative assessments, and is administered at the end of the school year.
The four states that are taking advantage of ESSA’s innovative assessment pilot are part of a larger group of states that are innovating on their own and exploring formative and competency-based assessment.
Testing and Testing Opt-Outs
Though ESSA is encouraging innovation in the field of assessment, the law has maintained testing requirements that existed under NCLB. States still have to test students every year in reading and math in grades 3 though 8, and once in high school. ESSA also maintained the federal requirement of 95% participation in tests. But states can now create their own testing opt-out laws.
How are participation and opt-out requirements playing out at the local level? According to Alyson Klein, who covers ESSA for Education Week, the law is confusing when it comes to test participation. Under NCLB, it was clear what happened if schools didn’t meet the 95% participation requirement: they were considered automatic failures. Under ESSA, however, low test participation must be figured into school ratings, but it is up to the schools to decide how they want to do it.
For example, in Mississippi, New Mexico, and Ohio, if a school does not reach the 95% participation target, the school’s grade will be lowered by one level. In at least six other states, students who do not take the test are marked as “not proficient.” This is the bare minimum that ESSA requires. Parents in some states also have the right to opt their students out of tests, creating further confusion.
So testing methods and testing opt-outs will differ from state to state. Needless to say, this continues to disrupt the educational marketplace and to create uncertainty about the future of testing and assessment.
Want to learn more about what is happening in the educational marketplace? Read our white paper, 2019 Trends and Opportunities in the Educational Marketplace, and check out our blogs on assessment, ESSA, standards, and other pertinent topics.
ESSA Implementation Timeline: A Guide to Key State and Local Processes. Council of Chief State School Officers.
O’Keefe and Lewis (2019). The State of Assessment: A Look Forward on Innovation in State Testing Systems. Sudbury, MA: Bellwether Education Partners.