Misconceptions preventing innovation and improvement in state assessments 

The purpose of state assessment systems has been hotly debated over the past 20 years. State assessments are designed to ensure every child has access to an equitable and excellent education, but are they meant solely for transparency and accountability purposes? Or can they be more than that, by providing timely, actionable information to families and educators?

We think the answer is all of the above. But let’s be honest: state assessment systems are not fully serving the needs of families and educators today. To do that, state assessments systems will need to be reimagined and redesigned with students, families, educators, and policymakers in mind. Bold progress is possible, but first we’ll need to address some misconceptions getting in the way of assessment innovation and improvement.

The misconceptions about state assessments

States administer summative assessments annually in reading and math in grades 3–8, once in high school and once in each grade span (grades 3–5, 6–9, and 10–12) in science. Most are deeply anchored in traditions of assessment design and implementation, but it is worth looking at those traditions and examining how well they’re working today.

Over the years, educators, school leaders, and parents have raised concerns and challenges related to statewide summative assessments, including how long the tests take, the way they can disrupt instruction, the usefulness of the information they yield, and delays in getting results, among other things. States are showing interest in changes aimed at addressing such challenges (e.g., through-year assessments, performance assessments, competency-based assessments, etc.) but creating new statewide assessments isn’t an easy task. Barriers to change have included financial constraints, the perception of rigid federal policies or interpretations of those policies, and a general resistance within education to change.

More specifically, the following key policy and technical issues stand in the way:

  • Subscores. These are meant to provide diagnostic information to students and teachers, but they are not providing sufficient information as is. Alternatives could provide more helpful diagnostic tools with less testing time required.
  • Proficiency determinations “by” vs. “at” the end of the year. Policymakers and assessment experts are debating when students should be deemed proficient in a course or grade. This decision has important implications for testing design and innovation.
  • Computer adaptivity. The technology to adapt assessments based on the test taker’s responses has been around for decades. Adaptivity can provide highly precise, personalized tests, but misconceptions around the barriers to developing adaptive tests has prevented states from shifting away from fixed-form assessment designs.
  • Security. Current test security protocols are based on a model in which all students take the same test at the same time on paper. Updating security protocols based on modern testing systems would give policymakers more space to create new assessments that are secure, equitable, and more meaningful.

These are just some of the issues that warrant attention if we are to ensure state assessments fulfill their purpose: to measure student achievement and evaluate whether schools are serving all children well.

One size does not fit all

State assessments play a vital role in American public education, and we must modernize and improve them. States are making substantial investments in their assessment systems, both financially and in the amount of time it takes to administer them. As such, we believe assessment developers can and should partner with states to develop better assessments. We are actively partnering with several state education leaders as they consider ways to reimagine and improve their assessments.

As with all education policies, there is no single approach to improvement. What’s right for one state may not be what’s needed in another state. States need a range of options to best meet the needs of the communities they serve.

Do you have ideas on how to improve state assessments? Let us know. We’re @NWEAPolicy on Twitter.

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