Although most states are only about a year and a half into implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), we’re seeing an uptick in conversations about what the next generation of school assessment and accountability systems should look like. Those discussions should begin with what we’ve learned since the passage of ESSA in 2015. The stakes are high, especially for those of us who see accountability as one of the primary mechanisms to drive changes in the quality of education provided to students from historically disadvantaged groups.
Through ESSA, Congress and President Barack Obama launched what is essentially a fifty-state experiment in how to best assess students and hold schools accountable for results. Notably, ESSA replaced the relatively rigid assessment and accountability regime of its predecessor, the No Child Left Behind Act, with a system that allows states much more latitude on which outcomes to include in state accountability systems, how to weight those indices in school ratings, and what to do about schools and districts that fall short of their benchmarks.
As loose as the basic structure of ESSA is, the law allows some states to go even further. Under ESSA’s Innovative Assessment Demonstration Authority (IADA), four states currently have waivers from the law’s assessment and accountability provisions. We at Education Reform Now have begun taking a close look at those states, beginning with New Hampshire, which in 2014, was the first state to be granted an innovative assessment waiver from the U.S. Department of Education under President Obama, and in 2018, was the second state approved to participate in IADA under ESSA.
Unlike many other assessment innovations that tinker around the edges, New Hampshire’s Performance Assessment for Competency Education (PACE) departs radically from systems that rely on standardized, statewide annual assessments. Districts participating in PACE are free of ESSA requirements that the same summative assessments be administered in math and English language arts (ELA) in grades three through eight, and that all students in the state, with some exceptions, participate in the same statewide assessment.
Instead, in the eleven districts participating in PACE, student annual assessment scores are determined through a combination of locally developed performance assessments—administered throughout the year to show mastery of individual competencies—and one or more of what PACE calls “Common Tasks.” Contrary to their name, the same “Common Tasks” are not given in all PACE districts, grades, or subjects. Instead, districts choose from a “bank” of items with the number of assessments administered in each IADA district varying between six and twenty-five per subject per year. Students in PACE districts also take the state’s summative assessments in math and English/ELA, but only once in each grade-span (three through five, six through eight, and ten through twelve) rather than annually in grades three through eight, as is the case in non-IADA states.
PACE presents a number of opportunities to improve instruction and boost outcomes, as well as some significant risks. If PACE meets the state’s ambitious goals, it may:
- Complement the knowledge and skills assessed under the original system by requiring students to synthesize information in multi-step problems.
- More readily reflect what students are actually learning in the classroom and what knowledge and skills they still need to master.
- Provide more actionable and timely information through flexible administration of multiple assessments throughout the year, which allow educators to personalize instruction.
However, PACE also poses a number of challenges and inherent risks, including:
- The processes and results of the PACE system are more complicated and less transparent than most states’ accountability systems that are centered around public reporting of summative assessments and other indices common to all schools and districts.
- The fact that assessments differ from grade to grade hinders the reliable measurement of student growth, as compared to traditional systems that make year-to-year, apples-to-apples comparisons.
- Tasks may vary in what they measure and their level of rigor. “Common tasks” vary across districts, which makes inter-district comparisons difficult and may hold students across the state accountable to different standards.
Given what seems to be prolonged stagnation nationally on student achievement, at least as measured by NAEP and some international indices, we recommend a spirit of open-mindedness when it comes to innovative approaches to assessment and accountability. Because both IADA and ESSA state plans are in their early stages, the jury is out on whether they’re better than traditional approaches at promoting college and career readiness. Nonetheless, regardless of how successfully the Granite State implements PACE, we caution against it being a model for other states. New Hampshire is relatively unique compared to states across the country: It is less demographically diverse, small in size, has few students, and has no large districts. As a result, a complex and localized system such as PACE will likely face additional hurdles if adopted elsewhere.