Guest Post: To catalyze assessment innovation, Uncle Sam must step up

Guest Post: To catalyze assessment innovation, Uncle Sam must step up

Lindsay Fryer is the president and founding principal of Lodestone DC, an education consulting firm based in Washington, D.C. She’s also a friend, and one of the few people I know who geeks out on state testing as much as I do.

Today, a guest post by Lindsay offers concrete steps on how the federal government can help move the current assessment conversation forward in practical and productive ways. Indeed, the chatter happening now on the topic often focuses on “defense only” and how to protect the current regime. Lindsay’s insights suggest that innovation could be the best means of defense. Here’s Lindsay, enjoy:


State education chiefs, school district leaders, teachers, philanthropists, policymakers, assessment vendors, non-profits, community and civil rights leaders, parents, students – basically anyone with a stake in K-12 education – all seem to have a renewed interest in the future and use of statewide assessments to gauge student learning and school quality. The scrutiny on State assessments has become even more acute due to the pandemic, with stakeholders from a wide array of professional positions and political affiliations questioning the utility and purpose of the status quo. It’s no surprise that calls for assessment “innovation” are prevalent in almost every K-12 education discussion, and there are many discussions underway.

What’s less clear is what “innovation” actually means. Does it mean completely dumping annual standardized tests that have been used for decades to objectively measure students’ skills against a set of academic standards? Does it mean testing less frequently or through the use of smaller tests over the course of a year? Does it mean changing how tests are used to evaluate schools? Does it mean testing students’ abilities in new ways through the use of performance-, competency-, proficiency-, name your alphabet soup of “something”-based assessments? The answer is “yes, but…” there is no consensus around these ideas. So far, the conversations underway have yielded complaints about the current systems, but very few concrete ideas about what should replace the current assessment regime.

While States, districts, teachers, and parents (with assessment expert partners) must rightly lead the way on these conversations about the future of assessments, it is also true that the Federal government, specifically the U.S. Department of Education (ED), has tools at its disposal to seed, direct, and support efforts to discover and test new ideas before high-stakes, long-standing policy changes are enacted. Some of these ideas could be done with little effort. Specifically, ED could:

Continue to use the Competitive Grants for State Assessment program to encourage assessment innovation, perhaps in more directed ways, to explore specific problems of practice;

Include a competitive priority for assessment and accountability innovation in the Education Innovation and Research grant program or other relevant competitive grants; and

Issue guidance about what Federal funds can be used to support assessment innovation.

Other efforts might take a little more time, pondering, and discussion, but could very impactfully lead to new efforts and ideas:

Updating assessment peer review guidance to allow for demonstration of compliance with Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) assessment and accountability requirements in more flexible ways;

Opening proactive communications with States (and districts) about applying for ESEA waivers from certain assessment and accountability requirements to pilot new ideas. While this idea might be controversial among some, when done thoughtfully, deliberately, and carefully, this approach could result in significant data about the implementation and results of new systems; and

Issuing new regulations for the Innovative Assessment Demonstration Authority (IADA), which efforts we’ve heard are already underway at ED. KnowledgeWorks has some very tangible recommendations about how ED could loosen up the reins on some IADA requirements through an ESEA reauthorization, including: 1) Allowing a planning phase for States when entering the IADA; 2) Allowing States to propose a customized timeline to scale up statewide; 3) Rethinking how data comparability across schools, districts, States, and subgroups is demonstrated; and 4) Removing the seven state participation cap. It will be interesting to see what, if any, of these recommendations ED will (or can, given current legal parameters) include within updated IADA regulations, but they could go a long way in generating more State interest in IADA.

As we emerge from the biggest disruption ever to the U.S. education system, this is an opportune time to pause and take a look at current K-12 structures, practices, and priorities. But this does not mean that all current efforts are bad and should be thrown out or completely reconsidered. For example, there is real value in having comparable, objective data on student achievement across a State to inform policy and equity decisions alike. It is fine to acknowledge that the current statewide testing systems might not be helpful for teaching and learning day to day. That’s okay… they don’t have to be. But what is good practice is to take time to develop and test new ideas and objectives – even fail and try again – before enacting long-term policies of which we don’t know the outcome or impact. ED can play an important and immediate role in helping States and other stakeholders pursue “innovation” and explore new ideas.

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