I was always a free-verse guy back when I was serious about writing poetry. In creative writing classes, however, my teachers challenged me to express myself with the rules of forms—the villanelle, the sestina—that I would not have chosen on my own. This imposition of structure, even when it felt arbitrary, often forced me to be creative in new ways, to consider economy, focus, and balance in ways that enriched my less-constrained compositions.
The recently passed Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) offers states a great deal more flexibility in designing assessment systems than they had under No Child Left Behind and the waiver system it spawned. States will now be genuine authors of their plans to assess student learning and diagnose inequities in outcomes for the first time in over a decade. But the law does impose a form on those plans, prescribing a set of components and characteristics that each system must include. For example, school rankings must consider not only still-mandatory yearly test results aligned with state standards but also a “school quality” indicator, such as a measure of school climate or student engagement. Those of us who might prefer free-verse assessment are out of luck.
In the debate over the bill, there was much disagreement about whether these requirements were the right ones or, indeed, if the federal government ought to be setting requirements at all. This debate will certainly continue, but the immediate challenge for states and districts is to craft assessment plans that best serve their students within the rules set by the law. As this process unfolds, states could look for the paths of least resistance to comply with the law, an approach that was common under the waivers system. Alternatively, like poets writing within a form, they could use the constraints within the law to generate creative approaches that might significantly improve on the status quo.
A recent ESSA assessment design competition hosted by the Thomas D. Fordham Institute in Washington gives me hope the second approach will prevail. Loosely modeled on American Idol, the competition included ten finalists who gave brief presentations about possible designs for state assessment systems within the rules of ESSA. A panel of judges asked questions, and then both judges and audience members voted on how well they liked the proposed system. In the spirit of ESSA itself, which assumes that different approaches will work best for different states, there was no winner declared.
Like the judges, I didn’t find any one of the proposals a perfect solution. However, I was impressed by the thoughtfulness and creativity of many of the entries. Those imagining a more effective assessment system to increase equity seem to have benefited from having to work within the rules of the law.
Proposals included intriguing ideas that go well beyond path-of-least-resistance compliance. Here are some examples:
- Sherman Dorn of Arizona State University proposed a citizen “grand jury” structure for determining which schools are in need of improvement, juxtaposed against the prevailing “algorithmic” systems that use a rigid quantitative formula for identifying underperforming schools.
- The BE Foundation proposed the use of student digital portfolios to track student success and school quality, representing learning both in and out of school indexed to competencies and providing information relevant to students, parents, and community stakeholders.
- Bellwether Education Partners’ proposal suggested that should states over-identify schools in need of improvement based on the blunt instruments of student achievement and growth measures and then choose the schools in which to trigger intervention based on a rigorous inspection process conducted by outside experts.
- Separate proposals from America Succeeds and Education First both argued for allowing districts some choice of indicators within a larger state-set framework to encourage innovation and improvement in areas targeted by the local community.
- A thoroughly impressive group of high school students from Kentucky who serve on the Prichard Committee Student Voice Team argued for measuring school climate based on student surveys, an idea echoed in proposals from the University of Southern California and TeachPlus.
- Several proposals considered incorporation of measures of social-emotional competencies, such as persistence and relationship skills.
Not all these ideas are likely to be good ones. For example, as Bill Penuel of the University of Colorado at Boulder pointed out during the lively Twitter conversation during the competition, using existing noncognitive measures in high-stakes assessments runs into potentially serious problems of validity and gaming the system. However, these proposals do demonstrate that even within the form set by ESSA, there are opportunities to innovate in ways that have the potential to provide better information to states, districts, school, teachers, and parents about how to better prepare students for successful and happy lives. Let’s work to ensure states capitalize on the opportunity.