Education Trends

5 Ways ESSA Impacts Standardized Testing

One of the biggest complaints about NCLB was the test-and-punish nature of the law. Read about how ESSA could change that. 

January 28, 2016

The No Child Left Behind era has come to an end. On December 10, President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which replaces NCLB as the latest iteration of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA, the nation's main K-12 education law).

The education community (at least at the national level) largely supports the new law. Policy wonks are touting the reversal of a long-standing trend towards federal involvement in education and the return of control from states to districts over key education initiatives like accountability, school turnarounds, and teacher evaluations.

High-Stakes Testing and ESSA

One of the biggest complaints about NCLB was the test-and-punish nature of the law -- the high-stakes consequences attached to student standardized test scores. The law unintentionally incentivized a focus on test prep and the narrowing of the curriculum in some schools, as well as the over-testing of students in some places.

ESSA could change that. The law decouples high-stakes decisions and statewide testing. "Adequate yearly progress" has been eliminated, along with the sanctions -- including possible school closure -- associated with it. Also eliminated: the federal role in teacher evaluation, meaning that states no longer have to include standardized assessment scores in them.

In addition, under ESSA, for the first time, states must use more than academic factors in their accountability system. At least one indicator of school success or student support -- such as attendance, school climate, or access to AP or other advanced coursework -- must be included in measuring school performance (though academic factors must still make up at least half of all indicators for accountability purposes).

As the president of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, has put it, "high-stakes testing will no longer be the be-all and end-all of our kids' education." These changes theoretically free educators from the need to teach to the test. They could also result in new accountability systems that incentivize different behaviors among teachers that change how schools in this country work (for better or worse).

But it will take time for the impact of these changes to trickle down to the classroom -- time for states to develop and refine these accountability systems, and time for schools to respond to them.

How Does It Impact the Classroom?

For educators focused on their work for the next day, week, month, or school year, the notion of long-term change driven by policy can sometimes be a bit abstract. Plus, in many ways, not much will change at first. ESSA maintains an annual assessment, testing every child from third to eighth grade in math and English language arts each year and once in high school, as well as in science three times. And schools are still required to test 95 percent of their students.

But there are aspects of the law that have the potential to change classroom testing as soon as the 2016-17 school year. For example, ESSA:

  • Allows districts to use a locally determined, nationally recognized test like the ACT or SAT instead of the state test in high schools, which could have huge implications for classroom practice
  • Allows states to institute a cap limiting the amount of time that students spend taking tests, which could reduce that time (and the time educators spend administering them)
  • Funds states in auditing and streamlining assessment systems, eliminating unnecessary and duplicative assessments
  • Establishes a pilot program in up to seven states (or consortia of states) that allows for the complete revamping of their assessment system, meaning that it's possible that summative state tests as we know them will be eliminated, replaced by competency-based assessments, performance-based assessments, interim assessments, or something else entirely
  • Allows for the use of computer-adaptive testing in state and local assessments (NCLB did not), a process that could allow for much more accurate data on student performance

Of course, none of these are givens. Just because the law allows something doesn't mean that it will happen -- or happen well. And there are certainly many aspects of assessment that the law doesn't address (the timing of testing and score release, for example) that are critical for ensuring that test scores are used in meaningful ways.

Still, in an era when educators and parents alike question the testing practices that exist in the nation's public schools, the law has the potential to drive change. Will it be enough?

What are your thoughts and experiences? Please share in the comments section below.

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