President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act, ESSA, and this new law replaces the No Child Left Behind Act, NCLB. Moreover, ESSA was approved by a rare, broad bi-partisan consensus, passing 359-64 in the House and 85 to 12 in the Senate. Notwithstanding, ESSA is 1061 pages long, and includes numerous changes to federal education law.
Accordingly, in an effort to review the changes that will have the greatest impact upon educators, this post will discuss the Assessment portion of the legislation. Two blog posts about ESSA can be viewed from Big Universe’s website: ESSA: Special Education Guideline Changes and Every Student Succeeds Act, ESSA, Standards.
Nevertheless, teachers are hopeful that ESSA will bring about positive changes with assessments, such as a reduction in the amount of time spent on testing. Additionally, teachers wish to have the ability to use their own judgment and expertise to determine what skills their students need to focus on. More importantly, as the diversity in schools changes there is a growing need to increase the cultural relevancy on the required assessments for students. Conversely, ESSA represents a fundamental shift of authority over education from the federal government to the states. This shift allows for the input of advocacy groups, parents and teachers in local school districts to advocate student educational needs.
Accordingly, ESSA requires state testing in reading and math annually; however, schools no longer need to be concerned with high-stakes, such as meeting Annual Yearly Progress, AYP, an attached component of standardized testing under No Child Left Behind, NCLB. In the past, if students did not make “adequate progress” towards federal proficiency standards, the federal government could impose penalties.
Needless to say, under NCLB, administrators in schools became over-focused with test results. Working for Fairfax County Public Schools, I had the opportunity to observe and meet many teachers who taught in schools within the boundaries of Virginia’s Fairfax County Public Schools. As an educator, for months, I toured both general and special education classrooms and observed students in inclusive, self-contained, and general education environments.
Ordinarily, the schools did not have much flexibility in determining the content of the tests given to their students. In order to understand how NCLB has impacted students in schools, it must be viewed up close and personal in schools in order to understand and pin-point the levels of frustration for teachers under the pressures of penalties should their group of students have insufficient achievement.
Consequently, the impact of students not passing the test meant that a teacher was not proficient and teachers fell prone to a feeling of personal criticism in their ability to teach. Nevertheless, good test scores equated to teacher competency and proficiency in NCLB’s high-stakes. It was especially difficult for teachers who taught students with special needs, required by law, to administer standardized tests to students with disabilities.
Under NCLB, schools began to strategize methods to “teach to the test.” The music teachers at a Fairfax County Public Schools, Weyanoke E.S. had to cope with frequent cancellations of school strings and band practice so that students could spend more time in tutoring sessions after school to effectively pass grade-level tests.
Another example, at Weyanoke E.S. that I observed was a second grade teacher who was so pressured by standardized tests that she incorporated a third grade math standard of learning practice test as a whole-group lesson, even though her students were not taught the fundamental skills necessary to conceptualize the test content. Noting that students in second grade are not introduced to their multiplication facts until third grade this teaching method seemed to not make much sense.
Nevertheless, under NCLB, teachers developed a pattern in weekly Professional Learning Community meetings, PLC’s, to centralized the team discussion on students’ performance on tests. Comparing lists of student names, line-by-line, score by score to ascertain “smarts” within the classrooms. Consequently, teachers have felt a personal responsibility for student strengths and weaknesses based on their achievement on tests. Instead of spending time reviewing educational concepts and/or ways to differentiate instruction, PLC team meetings are patterned to focus on the types of questions that students need to know to pass quarterly tests, standardized tests; in addition to the time teachers spend revising samples of previous years tests.
Moreover, students have suffered for years under the high-stakes driven by NCLB, ultimately resulting in teacher “roboticized” instruction all of which are formulated by test questions. Notwithstanding, Weyanoke E.S. is just one example of many schools that have altered teaching methods, to adopt the mindset ingrained by NCLB’s high stakes penalties imposed from not achieving their Annual Yearly Progress goals.
Under ESSA, Weyanoke E.S. and teachers can no longer be considered failing just because of low-test scores. In keeping with ESSA’s theme of increased state flexibility and reduced federal authority, ESSA revamps NCLB’s approach to improving low-performing schools. NCLB’s imposed corrective actions upon schools that were not making adequate progress is no longer a threat. The requirement of state testing remains the same with ESSA, with the allowance for select evidence-based interventions for school improvement, as opposed to requiring specific approaches to school improvement under NCLB.
Conversely, ESSA opens the door for other forms of assessment, instead of just the standardized test scores. During the 2015-2016 school year, seven states piloted innovative assessment programs that using a variety of indicators to show how a student is performing. Multiple measures of proficiency include: projects, portfolios, and other locally designed formative assessments that create a summative score for a student. Key assessment features with ESSA include:
Allows states to use a single annual summative assessment or multiple statewide interim assessments throughout the year that result in one summative score.
Allows districts to use other tests for high schools with state permission.
Allows states to develop and administer computer-adaptive assessments.
Allows states to limit the aggregate amount of time spent on assessments for each grade.
Prohibits the Secretary from specifying any aspect of assessments.
Requires districts to publicly post information on all required assessments, including the amount of time students spend taking the assessments.
During the 2015-2016 school year, seven states are piloting a variety of innovative assessment methods, as a model for other states, should those states choose to be a part of the ESSA “assessment” pilot program during the 2016-2017 required implementation. One example of the pilot is The Performance Assessment of Competency Education (PACE), which replaces multiple-choice questions for more meaningful tasks that encourage students to apply what they have learned in sophisticated ways and to use critical thinking and problem solving skills. For example, middle school students could turn in research papers showing they know how to analyze and present information from many sources for English assessments. Fourth-graders might design and determine the cost of a the variables for a new public park for a math assessment.
Educators in districts are now able to develop assessment systems, because they are the people who know their students better; therefore, teachers are able to create the content. Assessments are intended to be locally designed and controlled; therefore, ultimately reducing the amount of student testing while making it more meaningful.
“We hear about over-testing because we really have two accountability systems,” New Hampshire Department of Education Deputy Commissioner Paul Leather said in a statement. “The state system is required by federal law but may not help us improve teaching and learning. Schools administer their own tests for that. The PACE pilot brings those together and reduces the testing needed.”
The Every Student Succeeds Act gives states the authority to design and implement better assessments and set targets on the amount of time spent on testing. New Hampshire’s system of competency-based learning will show mastery and growth more accurately than a single end of year exam or state assessment. In this system, students only move up a grade after they’ve mastered the defined skills for each grade level.
The New Hampshire pilot is as an example of how assessment of student progress can be done differently. The Performance Assessment of Competency Education, PACE, that provides a picture of student growth different from the norm, measuring growth rather than proficiency, and its design includes critical educator input.
Moreover, as states begin to write their state plans, educators have the opportunity to have a strong voice. As the focus on implementation during the 2016-2017 school year approaches, teachers, parents and advocates need to secure a seat at the table to collaborate, and partner, with state legislators, school boards, superintendents to make sure implementation goes smoothly.