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Aurora Institute

From Compliance to Continuous Improvement: Accountability, Assessments and Next Generation Workforce with ESSA

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Susan Gentz

Issue(s): Federal Policy, Harness Opportunities in ESSA

KidsThis post originally appeared at iNACOL on June 7, 2016.

There is an incredible window of opportunity for state policymakers with the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). States now have the flexibility to engage in conversations with local communities to reimagine the future of education and redefine what student success looks like.  What do we want our students to know and be able to do in the 21st century? How can we rethink preparation programs to ensure our educators have the skills and competencies for next generation learning models?

How do we create policy alignment and support for student-centered learning? Student-centered, personalized learning requires assessments for learning that are meaningful to students and educators alike in providing real-time feedback on a student’s progress toward mastery of learning goals.  Educators assess evidence of student work for demonstrating knowledge, skills and competency is key to competency-based pathways.  Summative assessments now can be broken into smaller units and offered as interim assessments to validate student learning and provide a quality control.  Combinations of performance assessments, computer adaptive testing, formative assessment and these interim assessments will help frame new systems of assessments to support building capacity in sync with educators’ and students’ needs.

With ESSA passage, states and localities are rethinking how accountability can ensure quality, equity and excellence — and examining how systems of assessments will support continuous improvement.  This includes a new role of states for building capacity and creating space for innovation through more student-centered aligned accountability with multiple measures and exploring new designs for certification and licensure through different models of teacher prep (such as with stacked micro-credentials) to equip the next generation of educators.


A forward-thinking accountability system should align state accountability to student-centered learning to provide success for each and every student.

Old accountability models from No Child Left Behind (NCLB) reflect an era of data poverty that measured student proficiency on a single end-of-year test. That “autopsy” approach to testing for accountability purposes does not support student-centered learning nor continuous improvement. Educators and students are interested in knowing where they are on the continuum of learning toward reaching their learning goals and graduating.  Thus, students, parents and educators need data to help manage meeting each student’s unique needs in personalized learning environments.

Next generation accountability models will utilize multiple measures and indicators of student progress to support continuous improvement throughout the year. Data will be relevant to inform instruction and differentiate instruction for improving student outcomes on the knowledge, skills and dispositions that matter most for future success.  Communities and local schools are redefining what success looks like for the “whole child” and designing next generation accountability to support their vision, values and goals of a new era of K-12 education “reimagined.”

Opportunity to Design for Continuous Improvement

The opportunity exists to design new accountability models to ensure equity by focusing on a better balance of indicators for supporting continuous improvement, such as:

  • Addressing that all students are on track for graduation;
  • Closing achievement gaps by serving vulnerable students;
  • Analyzing the effectiveness based on the amount of learning per unit of time; and
  • Better determining cost effectiveness for amount of learning per unit of time (with time-bound targets).

Multiple measures in new accountability systems require at least 3 academic indicators of (proficiency, growth, graduation rates… and at least 1 indicator of non-academic factors such as school climate, access to educational opportunity, access to AP courses, parent and student satisfaction surveys, etc.).

Accountability should drive continuous improvement of student learning with the goal of:

  • Achieving equity and college and career readiness for all students;
  • Motivating educators to meet individual student learning needs in real time; and
  • Extending beyond single-point-in-time proficiency rates on a single test score.

Before the passage of ESSA, the federal accountability requirements were out of alignment with personalized, competency-based models. The NCLB had a narrow focus on single-point-in-time academic proficiency, rather than on student academic growth toward deeper learning outcomes. With the passage of ESSA, states will now have flexibility to redesign systems of assessments for student-centered learning.  Assessments should be meaningful for both students and educators in determining what learning goals have been met with proficiency and mastery and what’s next on a student’s learning pathway.

Next generation accountability systems should provide greater transparency on multiple measures and support student learning. They should celebrate growth, calculate how quickly the achievement gap is being closed, show in real time where students or subgroups of students need supports and interventions.  Accountability should align with helping to meet the greatest needs of vulnerable students by pinpointing the resources needed to ensure student success.

ESSA charges states with the responsibility of designing new accountability models for schools that are focused on continuous improvement.  ESSA uses language outlining the importance of improved academic achievement towards college and career readiness.  The focus on continuous improvement is meant to catalyze rapid closure of achievement gaps between student sub-groups and provide the flexibility for local leaders to align with and support addressing student needs.


A growing number of states are considering new systems of assessments with multiple measures designed to support competency-based learning. If students are advancing upon mastery, assessments should be open to students whenever they are ready. Under NCLB, all students were required to take the same test at the same time as the rest of their age-based cohort. Under ESSA, the needed flexibility and supports are in place to systematically change the notion of what assessments ought to be, and when they ought to be taken to better support assessments for learning.

The iNACOL Federal Policy Frameworks 2015 urged Congress to make changes to ESEA to redesign assessments around student-centered learning. We were pleased to see all of iNACOL’s recommendations incorporated into ESSA. These recommendations included:

  • ESEA should allow all state assessment systems to:
    • Measure individual student growth;
    • Use multiple measures of student learning from multiple points in time to determine summative scores [annual determination]; and
    • Use adaptive assessments that can measure students where they are in their learning.
  • ESEA should establish an Innovative Assessment Pilot to allow states to apply for permission to develop rigorous assessment systems that better align with student-centered, competency-based learning models (for example, New Hampshire’s Performance Assessment for Competency-based Education).

With these policies in place, barriers for states have been removed, and assessments can be reimagined for students.

Next Generation Educator and Leader Workforce

A highly trained and engaged educator workforce will be the single most important driver of a successful personalized, competency-based education system. Educators and leaders will take on new roles as they work individually and collectively to design customized pathways to graduation for every student. Many will require new skills to adapt instruction for students with varying levels of competency and interests. This will require significant changes to pre-service preparation, professional development, and evaluation frameworks to ensure educators have the support and resources to make this transition.

Until recently, federal teacher requirements focused almost exclusively on input-based credentials like Highly Qualified Teacher (HQT). HQT provisions were repealed with the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)—an important first step. It will be up to the states to lead the critical next step: shifting the focus to educator competencies as the basis for credentialing on demonstrated outcomes, rather than on time-based inputs.

A new program in ESSA enables flexibility to implement new teacher and leader preparation program models. This provision, stemming from the stand-alone bill the GREAT Act, calls for the creation of teacher and principal “academies” with provisions such as:

  • Rigorous selection in admissions to get the best and brightest into the schools where they are needed most;
  • Emphasis on clinical instruction in preparing teacher and principal candidates;
  • Graduation tied to improving student academic achievement; and
  • Programs that fail to produce great teachers or principals will be not be reauthorized.

According to EdWeek, the idea behind these programs is “academies will be free from burdensome, input‐based regulations that are unrelated to student achievement.”

Professional learning for educators in the future will also model competency-based learning environments with demonstrated performance and outcomes, and teachers will also experience powerful, personalized learning experiences generating evidence of success with exhibitions and e-portfolios.

With ESSA’s new flexibility, state policy can change to support teachers earning micro-credentials, stacking together competency-based credentials earned through personalized learning experiences that focus on developing important skills with the evidence through projects and work products of mastery of the required competencies.  These could form the basis of new competency-based teacher credentials and licenses — creating pre-service and in-service competency-based pathways for adults in K-12 education as well as students.

New competency-based talent and leadership development pathways are necessary to help to build strong pipelines of bold, visionary and capable school and district leaders to catalyze the transformation to next generation learning.

States, districts and schools can work together to create next generation micro-credentials to redesign teacher preparation for the 21st century.  The states have all of the flexibility they need from the federal government, with ESSA removing and eliminating the highly qualified teacher provision from NCLB.  It is time for districts to demand the creation of new models and for states to focus on competency-based pathways for credentialing and licensing adults in the K-12 education workforce, too.

Alignment with Higher Education

Transformation of the education workforce must begin with development of educator standards and competencies that align to a state’s academic standards and competencies, and which reflect the skills and professional responsibilities educators will need as they transition to competency-based instruction. States should engage a wide range of stakeholders in this conversation, including representatives from pre-service preparation programs and state educational agencies, as well as educators from the K-12 system.

A next generation education system will align pre-service and credentialing programs to ensure educators can succeed in competency-based learning environments through the following:

  • Pre-service programs and credentialing requirements should align to instructional competencies that will ensure educators have the knowledge and skills to help all students excel in a competency-based system.
  • Accreditation of teacher preparation programs should be aligned to instructional competencies which educator candidates earn based on mastery, not seat time.
  • Educator preparation programs should provide candidates with multiple pathways to completion, which ensure mastery of the full-range of instructional competencies.
  • Educator candidates should have the opportunity to follow multiple pathways to attaining competency-based credentials and licensure.

High quality and effective educators are the most important factor in the success of students. The success and sustainability of education reforms requires educator buy-in and capacity.

In the shift towards competency education in K-12 schools, changes to accountability, assessment, data, research, and funding systems will create many of the conditions necessary for lasting improvements. However, policymakers at the federal and state levels must ensure that integrated systems of support— from pre-service through credentialing, professional development, and evaluation—are in place to engage and adequately prepare the educator workforce. Our educators deserve personalized pathways to support and effectively lead the transformation of the K-12 system to competency education.

See also:

Susan Gentz is a former staffer for a U.S. Senator and a Legislative Aide in the Iowa House of Representatives. Along with experience in both federal and state levels, she also worked for a government relations firm in Arlington, VA, with a focus on state policy. She is based in the Washington, D.C. metro area.