By Karla Phillips

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) reduces the federal role in education and shifts more authority to states and school systems, while also maintaining accountability for the success of all students by preserving annual assessments and key reporting requirements.

The Foundation for Excellence in Education (ExcelinEd) has been extensively covering this shift in authority and the challenges it presents to states. You can find these analyses in our summary, our breakdown of what to expect from ESSA and the top changes in the bill.

In addition to the challenges it creates, the law also opens the door to tremendous opportunities for states to innovate and improve their assessment systems. With state permission, districts can use a nationally recognized high school assessment in place of the statewide assessment. In lieu of administering a single statewide assessment, a set of interim assessments can be administered and rolled up into a single annual result, and computer adaptive assessments are also now explicitly allowed.

For states that want to transition to a competency-based, personalized education system, ESSA offers the Innovative Assessment and Accountability Demonstration Authority. This pilot is inspired by New Hampshire’s Performance Assessment of Competency Education (PACE) system. If successful, it would provide critical flexibility coupled with needed support and framework for states to truly innovate and develop new, more student-centered assessment and accountability systems.

The Innovative Assessment and Accountability Demonstration Authority allows the Secretary of Education to authorize state-proposed innovative assessment and accountability systems for no more than five years and a maximum of seven states (or consortia of states). Consortia cannot exceed four states.

When will this opportunity become available to states?

Based on multiple accounts, it seems the pilot is a top priority for Secretary John King and his colleagues at the U.S. Department of Education. Therefore, the Department of Education will likely issue draft regulations and/or guidance over the next few months with an eye toward finalizing them by January 2017. If the Department can pull that off, the pilot could be up and running in time for the 2017-18 school year, assuming the new Secretary also prioritizes the pilot and states are ready to meet the substantial requirements laid out in the law.

What should states consider if interested?

  • Determine if application for the Demonstration Authority is necessary. With new assessment options and the possibility of the Demonstration Authority, the options for assessment innovation are plentiful under ESSA. The Council of Chief State Schools Officers has developed a tool to help states determine if their ideas for a new assessment system will require applying for the Demonstration Authority, or whether there is sufficient flexibility under the general assessment provisions of ESSA.
  • Consider the cost. This new pilot is not for the faint of heart; application requirements are extensive and will require significant commitment to both prepare and implement. Among the numerous requirements, the proposed innovative system must be able to “generate results that are valid, reliable and comparable for all students and each subgroup as compared to the results for statewide assessments given to other students.” States must also contemplate the required technical expertise, time, money and commitment of key stakeholders. This analysis should include not only the upfront costs of design, development and professional development, but also the ongoing costs of administration and scoring.
  • Consider the implications. While the innovative system can begin with a subset of districts, the plan must be to scale statewide by the end of the demonstration period. What does an implementation plan look like for a state with hundreds of local education agencies (LEAs)? What does this mean for charter schools, especially if they are considered LEAs? Depending on the vision of the innovative assessment system, will there be curriculum and instruction implications? How will this affect schools with unique instructional models that are providing great choices for students?

Diversity in LEAs pose one implication, but let’s not forget the most basic and arguably most important caveat: states must demonstrate applicability of the new system to all students and all subgroups.

How can states leverage this opportunity?  

  • Understand the far-reaching commitment before applying for the pilot. This pilot program is for those states who are deeply committed to the transition to Competency-Based Education and the assessment and accountability models that support it. Before applying, states should allow for sufficient time to gather the input and commitment of key stakeholders and consider the pilot’s extensive application and implementation requirements.
  • Begin by authorizing an Innovation Schools program. States that wish to apply could pilot new models by authorizing an Innovation Schools program or by identifying districts that have already begun the transition to Competency-Based Education. From these schools and districts, interested states can begin to identify policy barriers as well as the types of assessments needed to support full implementation.

Want to learn more about Competency-Based Education? Check out our resources:

Read more about Competency-Based Education at ExcelinEd’s blog, TheEdFlyBlog.com:

For more, see:

Karla Phillips is policy director at the Foundation for Excellence in Education. Follow her on Twitter: @azkarla.


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