Next week is the deadline for states to submit an application for the innovative assessment pilot to the U.S. Department of Education (ED). If you missed this news, don’t worry, you haven’t missed much. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) allows ED to grant assessment flexibility to up to seven states to do something different from giving traditional end-of-year standardized tests. The best example of an innovative state assessment system is New Hampshire, which allows some districts to give locally designed performance-based assessments. These assessments look more like in-class activities than traditional standardized tests, and are developed and scored by teachers.
Two years ago, Education Week called the innovative assessment pilot “one of the most buzzed-about pieces” of ESSA because it could allow states to respond to testing pushback while still complying with the new federal law. But now only four states have announced they will apply, and expectations are subdued at best.
Why aren’t more states interested an opportunity to get some leeway on testing? Here are three big reasons:
- Most states are playing it safe on ESSA and assessments are no exception
When my colleagues at Bellwether convened an independent review of ESSA state plans with 45 education policy experts, they didn’t find much ambition or innovation in state plans — few states went beyond the requirements of the law, and some didn’t even do that. Even Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who has approved the majority of state plans, recently criticized states for plans that “only meet the bare minimum” and don’t take full advantage of the flexibility offered in the law.
Several states responded that they were actually doing more than they had indicated in their plans. As my colleague Julie Squire pointed out last year, putting something extra in an ESSA plan could limit a state’s options and bring on more federal monitoring. If most states were fairly conservative and compliance-based with their big ESSA plans, there’s little reason to think they’ll unveil something new and surprising in a small-scale waiver application.
Additionally, the law includes several requirements for an innovative assessment that might be difficult for states to meet. For example, innovative tests have to be comparable across school districts, they have to meet the needs of special education students and English learners, and the pilot programs have to be designed to scale up statewide. If states have any doubts they can meet that bar, they probably won’t apply.
- Innovation costs money — and this program has none
Something that stands out right up at the top of ED’s official application for the innovative assessment pilot is the estimated available funds: $0.
Any state that wants to develop and pilot a new innovative assessment model will need to fund it themselves, while keeping their existing assessment systems going simultaneously. Some of the innovative assessment models under ESSA — like using portfolios of student work or performance-based assessments — could be more expensive than traditional standardized tests because they take more time and effort to design, administer, and grade.
Many states have already spent more on testing in recent years than they planned. When the PARCC and Smarter Balanced test consortia started out in 2010, most of the research and development costs were covered by $330 million in federal grant funds, plus involved states could split the remaining costs. But, as many states left the consortia (most due to political pressure, not due to the quality of the tests), they had to go it alone and buy or design new tests on a very tight timeline.
As a result, states’ interest in increasing spending on testing is probably at an all-time low right now. For example, New York seriously explored the innovative assessment pilot, but ultimately decided it wasn’t feasible from a cost perspective.
- Assessment change fatigue is affecting students, teachers, and wonks alike
Most states have changed their tests in recent years — some of them multiple times. Every time a state test changes, it takes a lot of effort for district leaders, principals, and teachers to understand the new tests from an administrative and instructional standpoint. For states that have seen two or three different tests in the past five years, I wouldn’t be surprised if the appetite for yet another big change is low, even among people who would eventually like to see innovations or improvements in tests.
Could all this actually be good news for the future of assessments? If it turns out just a few states pursue the innovative assessment program, that’s not necessarily bad news. Back in 2016, I wrote that states should be extra cautious before making a big testing switch — especially if the decision is motivated by frustration with current tests, rather than a positive vision for what an innovative assessment should look like. Plus, states have the ability to make big changes in their existing assessment systems without applying for this specific innovation program. There’s plenty of room for improvement, and it might be more productive to do so out of the politicized glare of a federal waiver program.
In the near future, I think we are more likely to see promising, impactful assessment innovations in areas like low-stakes instructional assessments, pre-K to third grade learning, and science education — instead of the end-of-year tests in math and reading.
Several states are already doing this work. For example, Louisiana’s new LEAP 360 system includes optional formative, diagnostic, and interim tests aligned to the state standards. And Kentucky is designing a science assessment that uses locally developed in-class tasks to bring new science standards to life, but which doesn’t have accountability implications for schools or students. These kinds of quick-turnaround, low-stakes tests tend to be more useful for teachers than end-of-year accountability tests, and most schools are eager for free, high-quality instructional tools they might have otherwise purchased on their own.
Once all the applications for this round of the innovative assessment program are in, I’ll check back with a summary of which states applied and what they plan to do.