Apr 212016

Changes to assessments, again?

  • Some school board members think we can do better by tests. But it’s not clear if their opt-out resolution aligns with changing law
  • Federal law – What’s really required

Graduates with diplomas. Close-up of four college graduates standing in a row and holding their diplomas

Vice President, CPPS of Seattle

APRIL 21, 2016 – The Seattle School Board is considering a resolution to request local alternatives to state testing. It is not clear, though, if what the board is considering is anything the state can act on.

While states are free to select their own assessments, those tests must align to their state standards, and all districts in the state must use the same test, unless the U.S. Department of Education grants a waiver. It appears those waivers are intended for states that want to set up pilot programs for new statewide assessments, not for local control.

Testing 101

At the federal and state level, standardized tests are used to gauge whether or not schools are meeting students’ academic needs and, theoretically, help them track efforts to improve. States first establish their learning expectations, then use the standardized tests to measure student achievement and growth. When states have comparable data, they can identify schools that are especially successful in certain areas or with subgroups of students, or schools that need more focused support and resources.

Standardized assessments are supposed to inform continuous improvement. Whether tests currently in use provide actionable information is a point of dispute. The big summative tests that Washington uses are useful for monitoring schools, but many argue they don’t inform teaching and learning.

There is movement nationally to develop more holistic assessments of school health and student success:

  • Tacoma has a whole child initiative that tracks metrics beyond academics
  • Some states are moving into competency-based learning that require different types of assessment
  • Others are looking into using interim assessments during the school year, or adding adaptive features to measure growth, particularly of students working below and above grade level

The Smarter Balanced test that Washington uses is summative; that is, it  measures what students know at the end of the year against grade level expectations. It is also adaptive; that is, it adjusts the difficulty of questions based on student response. This last feature is supposed to give more accurate information about the test-taker, but it also requires familiarity with and access to computers.

Students take the Smarter Balanced tests in grades 3 to 8 and once in high school.

The Smarter Balanced high school exam is intended to gauge whether or not a student is on track to transition into career or college by measuring mastery of state learning standards. In contrast, AP tests that some high school students take measure mastery of specific course material for possible college credit; the SAT measures developed reasoning and is not aligned to high school curriculum; and the ACT measures general educational development in English language arts, math and science.

Can Seattle choose its own test?

When ESSA, the new federal legislation, takes effect in 2017-18, any district can choose a high school test as long as they get state approval. Choosing a separate test for grades 3-8 doesn’t appear to be an option.

In rules under consideration at the federal level, up to seven states could apply to participate in a local Innovative Assessment System Pilot, but this isn’t to accommodate local control. It is to allow states to pilot tests that are aligned to different learning models, such as competency-based ones where students advance upon mastery.

Last year, New Hampshire got a waiver to pilot alternative tests for just such a model. Some of their districts will use the Smarter Balanced test while others will pilot the competency-based test under development. But the goal is a new state test for an alternative system, not local district choice.

Seattle isn’t pursuing an alternative model, nor is the state.

Why is this an issue?

In its proposed resolution, the Seattle School Board cites implementation issues with the Smarter Balanced test, the summative nature of the test, the time it takes, and language barriers, among other issues such as low performance among certain groups of students. (If you follow the link, be sure to scroll to the end; that’s where the resolution is.)

It also cites the number of tests students are taking, though outside of the Smarter Balanced tests none of those listed are state or federal requirements; several are private tests students take for college purposes, and some like the end of course exams have been replaced by the Smarter Balanced test.

For an update on federal testing requirements and changes prompted by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), click here.

Have something to share with the board?

You can contact the Seattle School Board members here:

A Better Way: The Charles Rolland Initiative for Public Engagement is based on the principles of dialogue and deliberation, with the intention to foster public decision making. This is part of an occasional series to give background information on current topics so families and community can engage more effectively.


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 April 21, 2016  Posted by on April 21, 2016 Parent Line

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