The Assessment Landscape in 2019

Those of us who pay close attention to the education landscape have witnessed quite a bit of change in recent months, much of it fueled by political transitions.

The 2018 elections produced a significant shift in the governing makeup of the states, and the changes are likely to have important consequences in state education policies across the country.

— Democrats gained seven gubernatorial seats among the 36 states that had governor’s races on the ballot (Illinois, Kansas, Maine, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, and Wisconsin).

— Republicans won the governorship in Alaska, while the previously Democratic-controlled House in the state is now deadlocked, without a governing majority.

— For the first time since 1995, Arizona has a Democratic superintendent of public instruction.

— Six state legislative chambers flipped from Republican control to Democratic control (Colorado Senate, Maine Senate, Minnesota House, New Hampshire House and Senate, New York Senate).

These transitions are likely to manifest themselves in changes to accountability systems mandated by ESSA, including significant changes in the way states employ assessments as a means of achieving policy objectives. While it’s still early, we expect to see some states rewriting their ESSA plans to reflect revised priorities.

While approaches to accountability don’t fall neatly along political lines, we see generally a growing trend to rethink test-based accountability. States nationally continue to reduce the use of assessments as a high school graduation requirement, expanding the use of alternative pathways by which students can demonstrate their readiness for post-secondary success. Numerous states since 2017 have begun reducing the weight of student achievement in teacher effectiveness ratings. And most recently, local superintendents in several states have pushed back strongly as states released their new school report cards based primarily on standardized tests.

Some interpret these signals as states backing away from high expectations for all students to graduate ready for college and career, or from their commitments to ensuring that all students regardless of zip code have access to quality teachers and courses.

I think not. I prefer to believe that our educational leaders are calling not for a roll-back of high expectations and accountability, but for new approaches to inspiring deeper learning that engages students and leads them toward their highest potential. Parents and educators are not calling for us to abandon high expectations, but to stop reducing students, teachers, and schools to a single number or grade, to recognize that the knowledge, skills, and abilities we want our children to develop (and our children’s teachers to support) are diverse and multidimensional.

What this means for designers and users of assessments is not simply to stop assessing but to rethink how good assessments support good teaching and learning. That means engaging students in more-authentic tasks that are relevant and worthwhile, tied to what they’re learning in school, and that model the kinds of complex and creative thinking and problem solving that students will need to thrive in an increasingly complex and ever-changing world.

One end-of-year, standardized assessment cannot provide all that. Which is why it’s exciting to see states like New HampshireLouisiana, and Georgia piloting innovative assessment and accountability designs, and fourteen states participating in innovation networks to reimagine assessments and accountability that start with a commitment to promoting greater student ownership of their learning through richer performance tasks.

At New Meridian, we embrace this vision for a more authentic, student-centered assessment, and we’re excited about the prospect of working with states to design innovative, next-generation assessment systems that support good teaching and learning. Our pool of over 20,000 high-quality performance tasks and test questions—all of which have been produced, reviewed, and approved by states—were designed to engage students in more authentic tasks, tasks that measure critical thinking, reasoning, research, and communication skills. These include tasks that can be embedded into the curriculum for instructional purposes and common tasks that can be administered statewide throughout the year. With these building blocks, states can finally build balanced systems of assessment that engage students, inform instruction, and provide a reliable measure of student learning more cost effectively.

Progress cannot happen without change. And helping states adapt to a changing landscape is what we do best.


Examining how states and systems are rethinking education, assessments and accountability to improve student outcomes

Decoding the Data

Innovative New Companies Makes Testing Data More Accessible – And More Valuable

Editor’s Note: This is the first installment of The Prime’s Decoding the Data series, which examines organizations that package and present assessment data in new and creative ways. See the entire series on New Meridian’s website.

Fourteen hours after her day began, Camila finally has a moment to herself. She cherishes the 9 p.m. hour, a precious window of time that allows her to clean, pay bills and catch up after her kids go to bed.

Tonight, one item on the catch-up list is watching a video she recently received in an email; the video describes her daughter Maria’s results on California’s statewide assessment. It depicts four animated children ascending a hill on bicycles, including her daughter Maria. She is pedaling at the center of the pack, with the test score 2457 above her. The two children behind her are marked “Mt. Diablo Unified 2432” and “California 2422.” One in front is labeled “Sequoia Avenue Elementary 2477.”

The video is one of about a quarter-million produced annually by Spotlight, a startup that is working with ETS, the state’s summative test provider, to help parents better understand results of the annual California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (CAASPP). It shows Camila instantly how her daughter’s performance tracks against the school, the district, and the state, and goes on to explain the challenges she faces and how she can improve.

Spotlight is part of a new wave of pioneering organizations that translate vast amounts of complex assessment data into information that can be easily understood by parents, teachers, educators and policy makers. Their efforts are turning this data from academic autopsies into actionable information that can be used to guide improvements throughout the education system.

Giving Parents Better Data

In recent years, there’s been a dramatic rise in the number of schools using assessment data to make decisions about instruction and intervention. Last year, 75 percent of teachers identified data-informed instruction as the top trend in education, according to a survey conducted by Kahoot! That’s more than double the percent who identified it as a top trend a year earlier.

But if assessment-generated data has quickly emerged as an invaluable aid for educators, the benefits to parents have come at a much slower pace.

“Historically, the assessment results sent to parents have not been created with parents in mind as the end user. In order for the value proposition of high-quality tests to be fully realized, we must see the parents as a primary stakeholder and design the accompanying reports accordingly,” said Bibb Hubbard, founder and president of Learning Heroes, a non-profit focused on helping parents play an active role in their children’s educational success. “So far, parents haven’t been at the center of the equation.”

Hubbard founded Learning Heroes four years ago, motivated by a desire to provide parents with a greater voice in shaping education policy and practices. Empowering parents to become effective change agents, she says, begins with ensuring they have accurate information.

After observing for years a troubling schism between the perception parents have of their children’s academic proficiency and the reality as measured by high-quality assessments, Hubbard’s group commissioned research into the apparent disconnect. What it revealed was astounding: 90 percent of K-8 parents believe their child is functioning at or above grade level in reading and math, but according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)—a test broadly considered the gold standard among academic assessments—only about one-third of students are performing at grade level.

Those sobering initial findings became an impetus to uncover why the glaring disconnect exists.

Empowered to Advocate

Hubbard found that parents tend to put most of their faith in report cards as the key measure of student achievement; on the other hand, most teachers (nearly two-thirds) believe parents put far too much emphasis on report card grades alone.

“Our theory is that if every parent has an accurate picture of their child’s academic performance, they will be empowered to more effectively advocate on behalf of their child, and that in turn will make schools more responsive,” Hubbard said.

Hubbard’s organization may not yet be a recognizable brand name, but it has quietly emerged as an important behind-the-scenes resource among educators, providing fresh market research into the psychology of parents vis-à-vis learning. That research, coupled with the hands-on guidance Learning Heroes provides, is helping states, districts, schools and teachers package and present student data to parents in a way that is not only more user-friendly, but also more actionable.

Such was the case with Spotlight’s videos. In our California example, the animation helps Camila see instantly that her daughter’s score exceeds the district and state averages but is slightly behind the average in her school. Importantly, it explains where her daughter is facing challenges.

“You can see that Maria is a little farther up the hill than the average student in her district, [and] on about the same place on the hill as the average student at her school,” the video intones. “It looks like she has a steep section in her way, that’s an area where she is experiencing a challenge relative to the other areas. Her steep section is problem solving and modeling … here is a sample problem solving and modeling question for her grade. If she can get past this steep section, she should see her grade improve.”

Hubbard and other advocates say that making assessment data easily understood and actionable in ways like this can have a major impact. “When parents are presented with this data, they generally receive it well,” she said. “Fundamentally, parents are problem solvers.”

Next Month: How Washington D.C. public schools used data analytics to determine which actions had the largest impact on student success.

In Practice

A look at how educators are developing innovative strategies to use data to inform instruction in the classroom

A Collaborative System to Harness All That Data

Consider the largest school districts in the country. Hundreds of schools. Thousands of faculty and staff. Hundreds of thousands of students. At some, the student population even exceeds one million.

The amount of data generated is massive, and so are the opportunities to learn from it.

As Richard Murnane, a Harvard professor and Data Wise editor, put it, “The problem is not a shortage of data. The problem is figuring out how to use that data constructively and to do so as a team.”

‘A Cultural Transformation’
Data Wise is an 8-step process that schools and districts can use to collaboratively analyze data. It begins with organizing for collaborative work and helping participants get fluent in assessments; moves on to analyzing student data and examining instruction; and then finishes by developing and executing a plan and a means to assess progress.
The result is additional support for teachers, who no longer face instructional challenges alone, and a process that is focused on the interaction between teachers and students. When educators adhere to the process, the result is a system of continuous, data-driven improvement.
“We’re talking here about a cultural transformation of a school and a whole new way of doing business,” Boudett said.
To aid that transformation, the Data Wise Project also created a guide known as the ACE Habits of Mind, which include embracing ideas like action, collaboration and making evidence-based decisions. “What is important about the ACE Habits of Mind is kind of naming the intangibles,” added Boudett, “naming the things that are not specific things you can check off and say you got done.”
‘Deeper Shifts in Mindset’
Several case studies have been written about the journey Prince George’s County Public Schools undertook as the district worked to implement Data Wise over several years beginning in 2014. The district’s goal was implementation in 199 schools and the process uncovered many challenges along the way.
For starters, officials had to overcome skepticism in a district that had seen improvement projects start and stop over the years. A “compliance” mentality, in which educators are simply performing duties and checking boxes, had to be replaced by a true willingness to collaborate. The district found that schools adopted Data Wise at different rates; that they sometimes did not have the right educational expertise to address problems highlighted by the data; and that there were questions about where and how to direct resources. But ultimately, collaborative improvement took hold at many schools.
“Learning Data Wise requires deeper shifts in mindset,” David Rease Jr., who played a major role implementing the program, said in a Harvard case study.
In the Boston Public Schools, which was involved in the creation of Data Wise, officials described dramatic changes over time.
“Once we began to zero in on what really matters, and that is the interaction between the teacher and the child in the classroom and making that as effective and as powerful as possible, then we began to see the changes,” Mary Russo, former principal of the Richard J. Murphy School in Boston, said on the Data Wise website.
“We saw teachers feeling confident about the way they were teaching mathematics. We saw students excited about mathematics. We saw improvement in our performance.”
As Russo described it, “The idea is to create a spiral that moves ever upward, so that you are continually solving problems of student learning based on data—but you are evolving to a higher and higher level.”