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Aurora Institute

How States Can Transform Systems of Assessments to Support Teachers and Students

Education Domain Blog

Author(s): Susan Patrick, Dale Frost, Maria Worthen

Issue(s): State Policy, Build Balanced Systems of Assessments, Create Space to Pilot Systems of Assessments

Cute pupil in computer class with teacher smiling at camera at tThe Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), empowers states to redesign their current systems of assessments to better support personalized learning. To do this, state systems will need to provide rich, real-time data to teachers to support continuous improvement of student learning toward college- and career-readiness and to promote rapid closure of subgroup achievement gaps through personalized, competency-based education.

In competency education, assessment is a meaningful and positive learning experience for students. It informs how to meet students where they are, what comes next in a student’s learning trajectory and also what a student needs to keep working on in order to demonstrate mastery.

Systems of assessments that support personalized, competency-based learning help teachers, parents and students alike understand where students are in their learning process. Next generation systems of assessments:

  • Provide timely data to teachers to differentiate supports to students based on their individual learning needs;
  • Measure both content knowledge and the application of knowledge and important skills and dispositions; and
  • Determine student progress on and mastery of explicit, measurable and transferable learning objectives.

State leaders should seek input from stakeholders to develop a shared vision for how these systems of assessments will support educators and student learning.

Successful implementation of these new systems of assessments will require states to collaborate with and support local school districts and educators. States will need to invest in building educator professional judgment and capacity to reliably create, grade and evaluate performance assessments within these new systems of assessments. These systems should also make room for entry, formative and performance-based assessments as well as interim and summative assessments across a state to measure and evaluate student progress.

Assessments to Support Personalized Learning Under ESSA

With ESSA, states now have a historic opportunity to rethink how to use assessments in a coherent way to align and support teaching and learning while meeting the requirements of next generation accountability focused on continuous improvement. States can develop cohesive and balanced systems of assessments with multiple measures of student learning, rather than being pigeon-holed into the unintended consequences of solely relying on a single test.

This important shift from a single test to systems of assessments enables new ways of thinking about the role that assessment can play in supporting student success, including: providing a deeper understanding of individual students’ progress and success; meeting students where they are in their learning trajectory and readiness levels, including recognizing prior learning; and accelerating student learning by allowing them to be assessed and move on when ready by advancing upon demonstrated mastery.

What does this mean for student learning?

  • With the flexibility to assess students at different times throughout the year, it is possible now to track individual student growth.
  • With room to use multiple different types of assessments, it is possible to gain a deeper understanding of what students know and can do.
  • Educators can benchmark student learning when students enter a school or educational program, to identify their unique learning needs, and to give credit for prior learning.
  • Educators can customize instruction based on where students are in their learning and target resources to the students who need the most support.
  • With the ability to assess students at any time, and at multiple points throughout the year, local districts can assess students when they are ready to demonstrate mastery and accelerate learning. Multiple interim assessments can provide real-time data that can be used for continuous improvement of teaching, learning and programs.
  • With the ability to assess students at their level of knowledge (and not just on the standards for the grade level in which they are enrolled), it is possible to have a better picture of exactly where students are in their learning. This provides helpful feedback for educators, and richer transparency for stakeholders to close achievement gaps and increase equity.

States can include a variety of forms and types of assessments and test items in their new systems of assessments. The forms of assessments allowed under ESSA include the following:

  • Adaptive assessments can pinpoint more accurately where students are in their learning progressions, in addition to determining whether they have achieved proficiency on grade-level proficiency benchmarks. Prior to the passage of ESSA, federal law did not allow for the use of adaptive testing or the use of test items outside of a student’s grade level for federal accountability purposes. This information would provide greater transparency in the ability to analyze if and how much students are making more than a single year’s progress per year to accelerate learning. It would also more accurately show the depth of achievement gaps to focus more on equity.
  • Interim assessments—State systems could include smaller, interim assessments given at intervals throughout the year.  Specifically, ESSA allows assessments that are “administered through multiple state-wide interim assessments during the course of the academic year that result in a single summative score that provides valid, reliable, and transparent information on student achievement or growth.” Students could take interim assessments when they are ready to demonstrate mastery on a specific competency and move on to the next level. Interim assessments can measure individual student growth and knowledge gained over a given period of time, as well as the rate of this growth. It is possible to ask, “How much learning is happening in time-bound targets, per month or per year?”
  • Formative assessments are instructionally-embedded assessments that can empower students and educators with rapid feedback on student learning. Formative assessments can be teacher-created and embedded in curricula and instructional materials. While formative assessments provide more of a “check in” than summative information on student learning, states and school districts could explore innovative ways to use formative assessments to minimize testing burdens, and to determine if students are ready to demonstrate mastery on interim or summative assessments.
  • Summative assessments tell us what students have learned over time, providing a determination or certification of learning. Summative assessments may bring to mind standardized tests, but they can take many forms, including portfolios, performance assessments, projects and exhibitions.
  • Performance assessments – The performance tasks referenced in ESSA are a key component of competency-based learning. Performance assessments evaluate a student’s demonstrated performance on a learning target. Students must show what they know, demonstrating whether they have achieved competency or proficiency on a learning goal with evidence of their learning. Projects, essays and written exams requiring analysis of texts could be included in performance assessments. Performance assessments, which can use common performance tasks and/or locally-developed items with common rubrics for teachers to evaluate student work, measure complex demonstrations of mastery and integrate multiple points of learning evidence.

The Innovative Accountability and Assessment Demonstration Authority

A key shift in ESSA from NCLB is allowing states to move from a single, summative, end-of-year test, to systems of assessments that may contain multiple assessment and item types. As they examine new and innovative ways of thinking about assessment, states may wish to pilot them in a subset of districts before scaling up statewide. To do this, states will need to ask the US Department of Education for permission to participate in the Innovative Accountability and Assessment Demonstration Authority (also known as the Innovative Assessment Pilot), which is a new pilot program in ESSA.

ESSA already allows all states to create systems of assessments that include multiple assessments over time, adaptive assessments that can measure student learning outside of their grade level and performance tasks. The demonstration authority is only needed if a state wishes to pilot an innovative system of assessments with a subset of districts.

The intent behind this program was to provide a clear, objective and viable path forward for states to pilot new types of assessments for accountability under ESSA to support competency-based education and personalized learning. The statute holds a high bar of quality for these systems of assessments, requiring them to be comparable to the statewide assessment and to meet the same level of technical quality. Seven states could initially be approved to participate in this pilot.

ESSA presents a historic opportunity to redefine student success and to build aligned, coherent systems that advance a powerful vision of student-centered learning. As states harness this new flexibility to create next generation systems of assessments, they will empower educators to create innovative, student-centered learning environments to maximize the potential of each individual student. The Innovative Assessment Pilot in ESSA is just one tool that states can use—only if they need it—to power personalized learning.

State Policy Recommendations

  • Collaborate with stakeholders to develop a clear shared vision for how the state’s systems of assessments will support educators and student learning.
  • In partnership with local school districts, design, build and implement balanced systems of assessments to support personalized and competency-based learning.
  • Ensure systems of assessments provide coherence and support local systems to meet the needs of measuring readiness and identify where students are in their learning, to provide data in real time to support learning and to embed appropriately into the instructional process to support effective pedagogy.
  • Invest in building educator capacity to effectively calibrate and moderate on professional judgments of performance tasks within these new systems of assessments.

This is the fifth blog in a series to highlight state policy recommendations to create a foundation for sustainable, systemic change that will dramatically increase personalized, competency-based learning opportunities for all students.

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