Report Shows Innovation and Experimentation Amid Change in State Assessments

A report called The New Testing Landscape sketches a portrait of states undergoing massive change in their assessment programs as they seek to reconcile educators’ needs to understand students’ mastery of state education standards, federal reporting requirements, and political resistance from families and communities that are increasingly skeptical of mandated testing.

“Political opposition and the opt-out movement it spawned have turned testing into a third-rail for policymakers,” wrote Thomas Toch, director of FutureEd, the education policy think tank at Georgetown University that produced the report in September. “And while annual testing survived under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the national consensus on testing’s importance in school reform has largely dissolved.”

While political support for summative assessments may be waning, the crucible of competing perspectives on assessment has produced a wave of innovation and experimentation as education leaders look for solutions, the report notes. “There’s still more talk than action,” but states across the country are trying new strategies, from distributing assessment services across multiple vendors to increasing formative and interim testing.

Separating Test Services

For example, many states are licensing content, rather than incurring the expense of creating their own test items, and then contracting with separate vendors to handle test administration, scoring and reporting.

“We’ve been seeing an increasing interest among states in licensing this high-quality content, but incorporating it into their own custom design,” said Arthur VanderVeen, the CEO of New Meridian. “It’s a strong trend and it makes a lot of sense. As a country, we spend ridiculous amounts of money every year developing new custom content for each individual state, basically covering the same learning standards.”

Illinois, for example, released an RFP to create a computer-adaptive assessment, using New Meridian content but contracting with separate vendors for administration, scoring and reporting. Texas issued an RFP that separated its testing program into separate components, hoping to attract innovative approaches to test development, administration and other necessities.

“The decoupling of test design and administration is going to open up greater flexibility for states to continue to competitively bid the large bulk of their testing program—administration, scoring, and reporting—while maintaining continuity in their scale and test content,” VanderVeen said.

‘Budgets Have Held Steady’

The New Testing Landscape reported that the quality and rigor of state testing has increased in the last decade, with a continued focus on college and career readiness.

“States haven’t gone back to the days of low-cut scores when almost all kids were proficient,” says Scott Marion, president of the National Center for the Improvement of Educational Assessment, known more commonly as the Center for Assessment. “That’s been, perhaps, a lasting positive effect that they’ve held the line pretty well.”

Though federal money for assessment innovation is limited, and philanthropic funding for such efforts has decreased in the last decade, state budgets for assessment have also remained stable. “While the picture for state assessment budgets varies state by state, officials in most states said those budgets have held steady,” said the report, which was authored by FutureEd Senior Fellow Lynn Olson.

One area of concern the report did flag was “churn,” the turnover among testing vendors as states make changes to their systems. “Turnover comes with a price,” the report said. “The disruption makes it hard to track trends in student learning, maintain stability in accountability systems, and build parent and educator trust and support.”

Advances in Formative Assessment

Several states are also attempting to advance formative and interim tests that take place as students learn. “We’re seeing much more interest in richer forms of assessment closer to the classroom,” Marion said.

As most local superintendents are sold on the value of interim assessments to measure growth and inform instruction, they would like to see those same assessments be used for state and federal accountability purposes and are pressuring states to move toward interim-as-summative assessment designs. The technical challenges of using interim assessments for summative reporting purposes are significant, however. “There needs to be R&D funding to work with states to design new innovative assessment models that can achieve these goals of bringing testing back more closely to teaching and learning while maintaining rigor and quality and consistency,” VanderVeen said.

Overall, while some question the future of state summative tests, arguing they could be rendered obsolete by technology or other innovations, Toch says there will always be a role for standardized testing.

“Standardized testing’s importance—as a backstop to ambitious standards, as a window into school performance, as a driver of improvement, and as a linchpin of educational equity—remains undiminished,” he wrote. “The education sector abandons its commitment to effective assessment at its peril, even as it must address the flaws of standardized testing and test-based accountability.”