The glitter of assessment innovation

The glitter of assessment innovation

By Dale Chu

Last Friday, the U.S. Department of Education announced nearly $30 million in awards to 10 states under the 2022 Competitive Grants for State Assessments program (CGSA). (For more on the CGSA, see this earlier post). The ten states are: Arkansas, Hawaii, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New York, and North Carolina. A few things to note: (1) Louisiana received two awards, totaling nearly $6 million; (2) Nebraska’s award involves “three partner states” (not mentioned, but likely other NWEA states like Georgia); and (3) Arkansas’s project brings together two other states—North Carolina and West Virginia—so you could say at least 11 states are beneficiaries of this latest round of CGSA funding.

In the Department’s flowery press release, the Biden administration sings the praises of each of the proposed projects, which tend to be narrow in scope (i.e., staying away from state testing in ELA and math in grades 3-8). In some respects, this is by design as the CGSA outlines specific priorities, some of which focus on multilingual learners and students with disabilities. To wit, Illinois’s $3 million award will go towards developing through-course assessments for students in grades 9 and 10 in Spanish language arts. One of Louisiana’s awards, “Project INTEL,” will help develop an interim assessment system to measure the progress of English learners with regard to English language proficiency.

Others seem needlessly vague or lofty. New York will begin piloting an effort to implement “performance-based learning and assessment” models as part of a “statewide assessment strategy” that moves beyond the current assessment regime. Kentucky’s “United We Learn” effort promises “coherence” across state and local accountability and assessment systems. Consider this word salad describing the Bluegrass State’s ambitions: “All aspects of the work are guided by a pioneering, equity-seeking design framework that foregrounds processes for inclusion, empathy, co-creation and reciprocity to help the state build systems with communities.” If you can make heads or tails out of any of this, try giving it a go with the rest of the project descriptions.

For my money, two initiatives worth watching closely will be Louisiana’s “Equity in Test Design” project, which builds upon the state’s multi-year effort to better align state tests with classroom instruction, and Hawaii’s plan to expand and integrate its classroom based assessments with SBAC. The Aloha State has a built in advantage as the only state education agency with a single school district, so they could conceivably land on something that works for the entire “state.”

A colleague of mine raised an overarching concern that through-year testing, proposed by a few states, is becoming a “silver bullet” of sorts in the assessment innovation realm, when in fact it’s not, as things currently stand, particularly innovative. Too often, through-year as implemented is simply a histrionic exercise that shortens the current annual assessment into discrete, bite-sized increments (often three), where the final test is used as a summative exam for accountability purposes. Will any of these award winners come up with something different? The jury is out as to whether anything truly innovative will materialize.

To be sure, $30 million is a drop in the bucket in the grand scheme of federal outlays, but fingers crossed that it helps spur something durable in the fertile fields of assessment innovation. Indeed, these quests glitter brightly in the rhetoric of building tests that are more “authentic, relevant, and engaging,” but it’s worth remembering that what glitters too often turns out not to be the real thing.

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