The Future of Summative Assessment

Khaled Ismail says about a dozen states around the country are developing, piloting, or operating through-year assessment models in an effort to make summative testing more instructionally useful in the wake of the pandemic. 

“Many of those models look very different,” said Ismail, a principal at Education First, a national strategy and policy organization. “Montana is likely to be on the leading edge in terms of connection to curriculum and to what is being taught on a day-to-day basis in the classroom. But many states are experimenting and exploring this approach.” 

Through-year assessment dominated the conversation at New Meridian’s latest webinar, “The Future of Summative Assessment: A Statewide Approach to Innovation.” Khaled was joined by Dr. Julie Murgel, the chief program officer, and Krystal Smith, the education innovation manager, at the Montana Office of Public Instruction (OPI) in an expert panel moderated by New Meridian’s Ashley Eden. 

The experts agreed that, as states rethink assessment, educators are increasingly calling for actionable information—both granular and timely—on what students have learned so they can adjust classroom instruction. “I think the pandemic really highlighted for a lot of folks the need for time-relevant information that can be actionable throughout the year, and that can inform instruction and support,” Ismail said. 

Eden, the senior vice president of state partnerships at New Meridian, agreed. “We work with many states across the country and we have heard the same thing,” she said. “It feels like [the pandemic] was a real impetus to think about what we’re doing  differently.”  


The Momentum in Montana 

Timely and actionable information was at the top of Montana’s list when it began piloting through-year assessment two years ago. The pilot program, created by New Meridian and funded in part by Education First, administered a series of short exams, or “testlets,” throughout the year that were aligned to local math and English curricula. This gave teachers fast feedback on student performance and the ability to adjust. Those tests can then be combined to form a year-end summative score, giving administrators the data they need to make decisions.   

Now in its second year, OPI has partnered with 54 Montana school districts and more than 20,000 students using the through-course model, plus obtained a federal waiver from the U.S. Department of Education to eliminate duplicative testing. The waiver paved the way for Montana to take the program statewide in the 2024-2025 school year, providing a viable pathway to a statewide through-year model that meets federal accountability requirements.  

“I think the most critical piece is that we wanted an assessment that had instructional utility, that it wasn’t simply an assessment that met the federal requirements,” Murgel said. “If we were going to be spending this amount of time, we wanted something that would serve both roles, and not one at the expense of the other.”  

As she put it, “We want to be testing throughout the year, gathering that information and giving that information back so that teachers and students and families can be making instructional decisions.” 


Assessment Reflects Community   

Montana is a large, rural state with approximately 14% Native American student population as of 2018. The ability to create assessments that include input from local communities, align to local curriculum, and test what has been recently taught was attractive.    

“We really wanted to have an assessment where all students saw themselves and that was culturally reflective of Montana,” Murgel said. “Montana is nature. Montana is very rural. So many times, when we’re looking at assessments that are designed from a national perspective, the rural component, the frontier nature, and our indigenous and tribal components were not necessarily represented.” 

The work in Montana has given rise to New Meridian’s MasteryGuide Assessment for states and ProgressGuide Assessment for districts. Ismail said the model, which has also been piloted in Louisiana, has potential to inform assessment systems outside Montana.    

“We saw the potential … not only to be able to address some of the needs and concerns that are relevant to Montana, but to the country as a whole,” he said. 


Lessons From Montana  

Part of the webinar focused on what Montana has learned as a pioneer in through-year assessment over the last two years. Smith put it succinctly: “Have a vision,” she said. “Build your team around that vision. I think it’s really important to be bold and to be flexible, and really keep the purpose of your assessment at the forefront of your decision making.”  

Smith also said that it is important to hear feedback from stakeholders at every opportunity and to make sure that feedback is evaluated and acted upon when appropriate. “We want folks to be engaged in this,” she said. “We want to hear what they have to say, because we want to be flexible and adapt to their needs.”  

Montana officials went so far as to collect feedback from teachers, district leaders, special education experts, IT directors, and many others who are involved in assessment after every testing window. The practice meant collecting feedback multiple times throughout the year, but it created an inclusive process.  

“As we continue to roll this out statewide, we will not only engage those groups, but also engage students in this feedback cycle,” she said. “We’ll engage parents, community members, and legislators to really ensure that this is a whole-Montana focus and a statewide approach to the assessment that we’re trying to create.”