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ESSA

Want a Better Assessment? Start by Asking the Right Question.

In state after state, politicians, parents, advocacy groups and educators are re-evaluating the role that end-of-year tests should play in K-12 education. Given the high costs in taxpayer dollars and time taken away from classroom instruction, these are absolutely the right conversations to be having. As we take stock of how assessment is helping or hurting learning outcomes for our students, it’s critical that we begin by asking the right question: What do we want from assessments?

Critics of testing argue that despite nearly two decades of emphasis on improving test scores, the uptick on summative assessments like NAEP has been marginal at best. High-stakes tests reduce student learning and teacher effectiveness to a single number, they argue, while weeks of testing creates unnecessary and counterproductive stress and anxiety for students.

Those criticisms are not without merit. In my 20-year professional career at the intersection of student learning and assessment innovation, I’ve seen firsthand how preoccupation with test scores can distort incentives and divert scarce state resources—including inordinate amounts of money, time and energy—from instruction. Tests, no matter how well-designed and administered, don’t teach.

Yet for all the criticism levied at test-based accountability systems, summative assessments continue to play a critically important—indeed vital—role in education. That’s because summative assessments are the single most effective mechanism for promoting equity in education.

Tests that are aligned to academic standards and administered uniformly give parents, educators and other education stakeholders actionable insight into how students—and groups of students—are progressing toward academic goals. They help policymakers understand why some schools are successfully closing achievement gaps while others are not. Data from summative tests ultimately help promote equity by informing decisions about where additional support should be directed.

Equity in educational opportunity is a foundational American social value deeply woven into the nation’s fabric long before it was mandated by the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA). That law has been reauthorized in different forms a number of times, most recently in 2015, with the enactment of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). The federal government’s accountability powers receded with ESSA, and as a result, states now bear a greater responsibility for promoting equity. 

But ESSA also granted states unprecedented opportunity to develop better tests. If tests interfere with learning, or if they fail to support good teaching, states now have unprecedented flexibility to devise and implement improved systems of assessment. If there is dissonance between a state test and its educational goals, states can employ a better test.

Two years ago, education leaders in the now-defunct PARCC consortium entrusted New Meridian with the responsibility of salvaging and repurposing a pool of high-quality, engaging performance tasks created through an interstate, collaborative process. They envisioned a model in which this item pool, originally designed to power a single test, could be accessed by states to create custom assessment systems quickly and cost-effectively.

Since then, we’ve invested heavily in maintaining and expanding this pool of authentic performance tasks and test questions. Every item—more than 10,000—has been produced, reviewed and approved by hundreds of educators across multiple states. They are essential building blocks that can be used to create summative tests, adaptive tests and classroom-based formative and interim tests. They can be embedded into the curriculum for instructional purposes or be administered as common tasks across a district to identify which schools are better preparing students to think critically, solve problems and communicate their ideas.

More and more states are reflecting on the efficacy of their summative assessments, they’re rethinking test-based accountability and they’re reevaluating the role assessments should play in advancing policy objectives. As we work with state education leaders, we urge them to begin by asking, “What do we want from assessments?”

As states begin to answer that question, we’re leaning forward, encouraging them to go beyond the conventional and seize on the incredible opportunities available to innovate. Let’s design new systems of assessment that maintain our defining commitments to equity while increasing the instructional value to educators and students.

Innovative assessment systems that support good teaching and learning need not bust state budgets while taking years to develop. Together, we can build systems of assessment that are personalized to the needs of individual students, that inform instruction and that reliably measure student learning in support of equity.

Arthur VanderVeen is the CEO of New Meridian Corporation, a nonprofit assessment design and development company in Austin, Texas. He has 20 years of experience in education assessment and technology organizations. Prior to founding New Meridian, Arthur was Vice President of Business Strategy and Development for Compass Learning. There, he led the company’s strategy to partner with formative ...

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