Effectively transitioning to student-centered, competency-based education will require new systems of assessments that align to student-centered learning. In partnership with communities, many state, district, and school leaders are seeking new ways to integrate assessments for learning into students’ educational experiences. These new systems of assessments aim to be more timely, responsive, and accessible to educators, parents, and students, producing information that allows educators, schools, and systems to adapt and change course over time. While progress has been made, current federal constraints are making comprehensive change challenging.
In the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), Congress encouraged state leaders to think differently about assessment through the Innovative Assessment Demonstration Authority (IADA). The IADA attempts to provide states space to explore innovative assessment approaches while maintaining the critical role assessments play in ensuring equity and accountability. While Congress’s intentions were good, the practical realities of implementing IADA have been challenging, and the program has not led to the transformation in assessment we were all hoping to see.
Recognizing this, the U.S. Department of Education (USED) recently asked for feedback about how to make IADA more appealing and more effective in driving assessment innovation at scale. The Aurora Institute, along with other national organizations committed to advancing student-centered learning, provided suggestions for how to improve the program. And we weren’t alone; USED received many comments on the program and ways to improve it.
Secretary Cardona’s recent letter to Chief State School Officers highlighting improvements to USED’s implementation of IADA shows significant progress. The Secretary underscores the critical role that assessments play in effective education and acknowledges the shortcomings of current assessment approaches, many of which are driven by federal requirements. In an attempt to improve IADA, the Secretary clarifies several key provisions and identifies ways USED is working to encourage state participation. We found the following USED clarifications to be particularly helpful:
- Clarifying comparability. States have typically understood the requirements of comparability under IADA to require any new tests to closely match the old. This perception effectively tied states’ hands, defeating the purpose of innovation from the start. USED’s letter clarified different permissible methods of comparability, acknowledging there are ways to be both comparable and innovative under the current federal requirements. USED should build on this clarification by integrating it into their technical assistance to states and peer review process.
- Providing time to plan. While nothing previously prevented states from starting to plan before applying for IADA, doing so involved significant investment of resources, all while facing the prospect of denial in the end. USED has now created a “planning status” to acknowledge the planning stage explicitly and publicly. Hopefully this early partnership and support will make states more likely to embark on the process to begin with. This improvement is particularly important to enable authentic stakeholder engagement to ensure the state’s approach is co-created, not dictated due to time constraints.
- Signaling the path to scale. It takes significant time to transform an entire assessment system to a new innovative approach. By addressing both the overall IADA timeframe, and the potential use of waivers to support states in this process, Secretary Cardona seems to be signaling to states USED’s willingness to partner to bring their systems to scale on a timeline driven by states.
- Acknowledging the money problem. Secretary Cardona also helpfully acknowledges that the lack of federal funding for IADA can be a challenge and urges states to consider ways to leverage the Competitive Grants for State Assessment (CGSA), particularly considering a new round of grants is expected to be awarded in 2024.
- Seeking innovative assessment experts. Innovative assessments will require new ways of thinking about the technical elements of assessment. Secretary Cardona explicitly invites experts in innovative assessments to participate in the peer review process for both IADA and State assessment systems, underscoring USED’s intent to work with state leaders throughout the process to see new approaches to assessment come to fruition.
There is much more that needs to be done to truly allow for assessment systems that are student-centered and help, not hinder, learning and facilitate the shift towards competency-based learning. States applying for IADA pilots and grants should be empowered to explore systems change— moving towards true innovation, and away from the current assessment and accountability frame.
Ultimately, policymakers need to rethink the federal statutory language on both assessment and accountability that is codified in ESSA and ensure adequate federal funding for these systems. At the same time, it is important to acknowledge the steps along the path to transformative change. We believe Secretary Cardona has taken several steps with his letter. We hope the letter will signal to state leaders that they can think differently about comparability, inspire assessment experts that haven’t served as peer reviewers to sign up, and encourage states across the nation to apply for CGSA and start down the path toward change.