1-aasa-logo.jpg school innovations and achievement

This document is one in a series of reports on key aspects of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) produced in a partnership between AASA, The School Superintendents Association and School Innovations & Achievement’s Cabinet Report. The full set of resources is available at aasa.org/AASAESSA.aspx.

 Assessment under ESSA—something old, a lot that's new

Though some of the essential assessment procedures required under the No Child Left Behind Act remained intact with the Every Student Succeeds Act, there are many new activities mandated that will have an impact on testing practices as well as accountability measures. Preparations need to begin immediately, because they will affect virtually every department in a school district.

Between now and the full implementation of ESSA, states are expected to adopt or confirm adoption of “challenging academic content standards” along with “aligned academic achievement standards” that “shall include not less than [three] levels of achievement.” Even though there is broad discretion as far as curricula and tools are concerned under ESSA, the law is very particular about who, what and when in regard to assessment. The standards will be expected to address the familiar content areas— reading or language arts, mathematics, and science—but states will also have the option of choosing other subjects to measure in order to assess overall school performance. Similarly, as was required under No Child Left Behind, reading or language arts as well as mathematics must be tested once per year in grades 3-8 and at a minimum of once during the high school years (grades 9-12). Science assessments must “be administered not less than one time” during each of the following intervals: grades 3-5, grades 6-9 and grades 10-12. Nevertheless, adequate yearly progress indicators are no longer necessary, nor are annual measureable objectives.

The choice of the assessment instruments themselves is left up to the states, provided they “ensure their continued alignment with the challenging State academic standards” and align with instruction. Also, through grants, the department will also be encouraging states to “include summative, interim, and formative assessments” and support local education agencies who engage in their own development of such devices.

A slant that is novel (as far as federal law is concerned) is the requirement that these tests go beyond assessing content acquisition (i.e., measuring information retention) and also focus on “higher-order thinking skills and understanding.” To that end, the law requires multiple measures (not simply nationally standardized instruments), which “may be partially delivered in the form of portfolios, projects, or extended performance tasks.”

For those students with “significant cognitive disabilities,” a very small subset of the special education population, states will still be able to adopt “alternate academic achievement standards” to be assessed accordingly. Statewide, the 1 percent cap on this group remains in place, but with two unusual (at least from a regulatory standpoint) features. First, states are capped, but they are not allowed to “impose on any local educational agency a cap on the percentage of students administered an alternate assessment,” except that if the limit is exceeded, it must be reported with “information to the State educational agency justifying the need to exceed such cap.” Secondly, the secretary of education may waive this provision—a peculiarity, given that Congress went to great lengths to strip the Department of Education of waiver authority in other parts of the bill.

Another departure from NCLB is the emphasis on performance for English learners. The new law will make states and local education agencies focus just as much on the actual scholastic gains of this group as their language acquisition. In that spirit, ESSA provides that English-learner accountability will be included as part of Title I—the section dedicated to the performance of students—instead of Title III, which dictates the allocation of funds for English-language acquisition.

Assessments will continue to be used to determine English-language proficiency. However, schools will also be testing academic performance in the primary (not English) language of English learners. This mandate is an abrupt about-face from No Child Left Behind and will result in a higher level of accountability on the part of schools when it comes to ascertaining the accomplishments of the English-learner population. The legislation emphasizes that English learners will be assessed in a “valid and reliable manner and provided appropriate accommodations on assessments … including, to the extent practicable, assessments in the language and form most likely to yield accurate data on  what such students know and can do in academic content areas. ”

In addition, states can now exclude recently arrived English learners who have been enrolled in a school for less than a year from one administration of the English language arts assessment. As a general rule, ESSA stipulates that all youths be tested in English if they have been in the country for three consecutive years or longer, with the exception that local education agencies, on “a case-by-case individual basis,” may extend that time period for two more years. Such an extension would need to be based on the determination that “that academic assessments in another language or form would likely yield more accurate and reliable information on what such student knows and can do.”