High-Quality Assessments: Good and Getting Better

There are many tools educators and parents have to measure their students’ development, but none is more important than good assessments. Exams that challenge students and offer an accurate measure of understanding empower families to provide support when and where their kids need it most. They inform teachers so they can build on what’s working and tailor instruction. And they help hold schools accountable for ensuring all students receive an education that fully prepares them for college, a career or whatever path they choose after high school.

More than six years ago most states began to implement a new, more rigorous baseline of education standards. As they raised classroom expectations, most states adopted next-generation assessments specifically aligned to those new learning goals. Last year, a majority of states administered those tests for the first time, marking an important milestone towards providing parents, teachers and taxpayers with accurate information about student performance.

The initial results were a dose of tough medicine. Because states raised expectations to levels reflective of college and career readiness, fewer students earned top scores. For parents who were once told their children were on track to move on to higher level material, often the news they might not be was a hard pill to swallow. “No one likes to hear bad new, but without an accurate diagnosis, you can’t get well,” Mike Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, explained.

But, Petrilli cautioned, parents should resist the “siren song” of those who want to use this moment of truth to attack their states’ implementation of high standards, or assessments aligned to those higher expectations. “They may not be perfect, but they are finally giving parents, educators and taxpayers an honest assessment of how our students are doing.”

Indeed, states immediately began to provide more accurate information about student performance. The “Honesty Gap” analysis this year found 26 states significantly closed discrepancies between state-reported proficiency rates and those identified by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which is widely considered an objective measure of student readiness. That means parents are finally getting truthful data about how well their children are developing the skills and knowledge they need to advance to higher levels of learning.

Fortunately, many states remained firm in their commitment to implementing meaningful assessments. This year a majority of states once again administered assessments aligned to higher standards. Where the first year drew a starting line, this year’s results offered the first glimpse to the progress students are making. As anticipated, proficiency rates overwhelmingly began to improve. Tellingly, the biggest gains often came among early-grade students – those who have spent most or all of their educational careers learning to higher standards.

Although it’s too early to “plant a flag,” initial results from the second year of assessments indicate the promise of high standards and challenging assessments is working, Jim Cowen wrote. “The message should be clear: High standards and high-quality assessments best serve our students’ needs, help to prepare them for college and career, and are delivering promising results. To change course now would be a mistake.”

Unfortunately, some state leaders succumbed to political pressure and set out to “go it alone” with their assessments – a decision that ultimately proved costly. These states abandoned consortia exams (those developed by PARCC and Smarter Balanced and specifically aligned to states’ new learning goals) in an attempt to appease critics, and developed their own independent or state-developed exams. The move proved a costly exercise that will likely produce inferior tests.

A Chalkbeat article explains: “The process of leaving consortia that was meant to pacify local protests against Common Core-aligned tests has actually led to chaos and confusion in the classroom, not to mention extra costs to those same states to develop replacement exams.”

“Beyond the costs, time constraints and technical challenges that accompany the development and implementation of new assessments, states that have struck out on their own have also jeopardized their ability to compare their progress to other states—and may very well come out with an inferior assessment in the process,” Jim Cowen adds.

Evidence makes clear assessments designed to align to states’ higher standards provide more accurate, actionable information for parents. Independent analyses by the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY) and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute find consortium exams (Smarter Balanced and PARCC) outperforms states’ old “bubble tests” and even most next-generation assessments. Specifically, both reports note the consortia exams accurately reflect student understanding, align well with good classroom instruction and match up well with states’ learning goals.

Because of those qualities, these new assessments alleviate pressures to “teach to the test.” In fact, because they align closely with what’s taught in the classroom, good instruction is the best preparation teachers can provide. And, unlike states’ old tests, consortia exams hone in on students’ understanding of a subject, providing clear insight about where students can best be supported.

High-quality tests are necessary to ensure all students have access to an education that prepares them for success after high school. “Parents and educators deserve honest, accurate information about how well their students are performing,” explains Michael Cohen, president of Achieve. “Tests are not the only source of this information, but they are certainly an important one. We don’t do our students any favors if we don’t level with them when test results come back.”

Opt-out efforts, which encourage parents to have their children refuse state assessments, undermine the value and integrity of assessments, and risk putting students at a disadvantage – and not just their children, but all children. Recognizing that reality, a growing chorus of parents, educators, education advocates and civil rights leaders has emerged encouraging parents to “opt-in” to high-quality exams.

Last year, 12 national civil and human rights organizations took a stand against anti-testing efforts. “We rely on the consistent, accurate and reliable data provided by annual statewide assessments to advocate for better lives and outcomes for our children,” the groups wrote. “The anti-testing efforts that appear to be growing in states across the nation, like in Colorado and New York, would sabotage important data and rob us of the right to know how our students are faring.”

“There are constructive ways to improve education and accountability policies,” former U.S. Education Secretary Bill Bennett cautions. “Opting out is not one of them. Refusing to participate in assessments put students, parents, and teachers at a disadvantage, and it does little to address legitimate concerns about the quality and volume of state tests.”

And Mr. Bennett is right – there are ways parents can help to improve testing policy. For example, the Center for American Progress developed the Testing Bill of Rights, which puts forward a set of common sense principles to help achieve better, fairer and fewer tests. Learning Heroes created the Readiness Roadmap, which offers tools to help parents better understand how well their children are performing and how they can support them. We have compiled a handful of resources for parents and encourage you to learn more about them here.

States are on the right path by administering high-quality assessments aligned to high standards and that provide accurate information about student development. By measuring to levels that reflect the skills and knowledge students need to become college and career ready, schools will help ensure more students graduate high school ready tackle the next step of their life, whatever it may be. To turn back on that commitment, though, would put students at a disadvantage and undermine efforts to raise academic expectations.

As Kati Haycock, president of the Education Trust, put it previously: “When we are finally going in the right direction, why would we even consider going back?”