New Meridian recently hosted a dozen chief state school officers at our annual convening on assessment literacy, which focused on assessment as a lever for equity and change. It was clear throughout the day that states are rethinking assessment. As they transition beyond NCLB-era compliance toward ESSA-era flexibility, chiefs are seizing the moment to evaluate whether we are getting the proper return on investment from our assessments and accountability systems. The conversation returned to the fundamental questions of why we test students and how we use assessments to ensure all students are receiving the best possible education.
As the leader of New Meridian, I ask myself these questions every day. How are we as an organization helping schools better prepare students for the future so that they can thrive in a rapidly changing world? How can we make sure the time and money invested in our assessments is having a positive impact on students and their futures?
As a parent, I want assessments that let me know whether my daughter is on track or falling behind, assessments that are fair and appropriate to her lived experience and culture, assessments that don’t reduce her to a single number, and assessments that give her teacher the information he needs to help her learn and grow.
As an assessment leader working with states, I keep these priorities in mind. However, for an educational leader managing a school system, this may not be enough. Leaders also need system-wide information that builds upon whether my daughter is mastering the learning standards for her grade, and that helps identify larger patterns and trends across classrooms and grade levels over time, both overall and for groups of students.
Why does this information matter, and matter enough to have my daughter spend part of her time in school taking tests, tests that in fact reduce her to a single number and provide only limited information that her teacher can use to help her individually learn and grow?
It matters because an effective school system needs this kind of information to dig deeper into the conditions that are impacting why some students— and some groups of students—are thriving while others are falling behind. Enacted at the height of the civil rights movement, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA)—the underlying legislation passed in 1965 that has been reauthorized in various incarnations since, including NCLB and ESSA—was written to ensure all students have access to a quality education, regardless of skin color or economic status. State assessments are the most powerful lever we have to hold states and schools accountable to ensuring this civil right.
Many of the states we work with analyze the relative growth of groups of students, based on their annual test scores. How are African American students growing relative to their white and Hispanic peers? Are economically disadvantaged students keeping up? How are students with disabilities doing? If we are ever to achieve equity among groups of students, we must have this information.
Moreover, effective school systems know how to put this information to use by identifying those schools that are out-performing other schools in achieving greater learning gains for students. When matched on size, setting, funding levels, and demographic makeup, why are some schools successfully closing achievement gaps while others are not? What can those schools learn from one another about the factors that matter for student learning, like a strong curriculum and quality instructional materials, effective teaching, strong instructional leadership, a positive learning climate, and family and community engagement? As states foster these cross-school conversations, they tap into a powerful resource for struggling schools: peers who have struggled with similar challenges with similar resources and yet have found solutions that work for students.
This is the power of assessment to ensure an equitable education for all students: while state assessments are limited in the amount of instructional information they can provide my daughter’s teacher, they certainly make it possible to identify schools that are finding success and schools that are struggling in similar circumstances so that states and districts can provide needed support. Ensuring equitable access to a quality education—and providing tools for continuous improvement and collaboration—is the real value of state assessments. States need to make data available and relevant so that families and communities are realizing the return on that investment.