States Need to Get Real on Testing Tradeoffs Before Making Another Big Switch

risksignJust a few years ago, it seemed like most of the country was heading towards common state assessments in math and reading. Two groups of states won federal grant funds to create higher-quality tests; these became the PARCC and Smarter Balanced test consortia. Now, despite the demonstrated rigor and academic quality of those tests, the testing landscape is almost as fractured as it was before, with states pursuing a variety of assessment strategies. Some states in the consortia are still waffling. Others that have left are already scrapping the tests they made on their own with no idea of what they’ll do next.

States should think carefully before going it alone or introducing a new testing overhaul without strong justification. There are some big tradeoffs at play in the testing world, and a state might spend millions on an “innovative” new test from an eager-to-please vendor only to find that it has the same, or worse, issues as the “next generation” tests they tossed aside.

The first tradeoff is autonomy vs. cost. State policymakers can feel hemmed in by having to compromise with other states in a consortium when they’re used to having the final say. But, one of the biggest rationales for multi-state tests is economies of scale and cost sharing – most states are going to have to spend a lot more to get the same quality of test on their own. PARCC and Smart Balanced tests had their startup costs covered by federal Race to the Top funds, and they also had several years to develop before launching, a luxury states don’t have on their own.

Most states aren’t prepared to spend a lot more than they’ve traditionally spent on state assessments, so they’ll get lower quality tests. That could mean less accessibility for students with disabilities and English language learners (translations and embedded tech features cost big bucks), fewer writing questions (they cost a lot to score), or as Tennessee had this year, a total testing meltdown.

Next, states hoping for shorter tests will come up against time on test vs. rigor and depth. States are under enormous pressure to trim test time. Even President Obama and the Department of Education have gotten in on the cut-test-time bandwagon, saying tests should take up no more than 2% of instructional time. But guess what? No state tests meet that mark on their own. Of course, maximizing learning time is important, but to assess large numbers of students on tough standards and accurately pinpoint their skills across multiple learning domains, it’s going to take more than one class period.

In the coming years, some states will also get a tough lesson in innovation vs. reliability. Many states got excited about the innovative assessment waivers in ESSA – finally they could be unleashed from old-fashioned testing constraints to do…something? Portfolios, maybe? There may be some great ideas yet to come out of these pilot projects, and perhaps a few of them will be implemented fantastically. But, it seems like many states just want to escape the attention of opt-out activists and the toxic reputation of their current tests, or buy a few more years before implementing school accountability systems. Few have put forward a vision of how “innovative” tests could better serve their students, or shown a realistic understanding that these tests will still have to meet very high standards of validity and reliability.

Across all these tradeoffs, states looking to make a change in their tests for the 2nd or 3rd time in as many years, leave a multi-state consortium, slash test time, and push the boundaries of innovation; will be taking big risks with taxpayer dollars and their students’ time. States should proceed cautiously, but when the real motivation for change is political pressure, these risks and tradeoffs are often ignored.

Disclosure: I previously worked on PARCC implementation and assessment policy at the DC Office of the State Superintendent of Education. Bellwether has also done work for the PARCC consortium.