President's Message

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From Richard J. Patz, ACT, President of NCME, January 2016

  • Congress has passed and President Obama has signed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), replacing No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the 2001 legislation that has guided the federal role in K-12 education for nearly a decade and a half.

    What’s the difference between ESSA and NCLB? Logically, if each child is a student who either succeeds or is left behind, then no child is left behind if and only if every child succeeds. This parsing of monikers suggests a great deal of consistency between the newest reauthorization of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act and its predecessor.

    Indeed, ESSA and NCLB  do have a great deal in common, specifically  with respect to educational testing. Nonetheless, significant changes that address new political realities and important public concerns have been introduced, and these changes will have a pronounced impact on educational measurement across the United States.

    The new law, like its predecessor, governs the way federal funds are used to support K-12 education at state and local levels. These funds continue to flow to states annually, and states allocate funds to local education agencies, all of this by formulas that take into account factors such as poverty and education costs. The law continues to impose requirements for student testing and school accountability, setting the boundaries within which states operate their unique programs. Each state’s program is to be written up in an implementation plan, submitted to the U.S. Department of Education, subjected to a peer-review process, and executed beginning in the 2017-18 school year.

    ESSA continues many of NCLB’s testing and accountability provisions. States must adopt challenging academic standards in reading or language arts, mathematics and science, and assess students annually in these subjects using tests that are aligned to their standards. Results are to be reported for whole populations and for key subgroups including English learners, students in special education, and those based on race, ethnicity, and family income. Progress is to be tracked and reported annually, with interventions required for low performing schools.

    Despite their broad similarities, ESSA leaves some of NCLB’s most controversial and problematic provisions behind. Stated most generally, ESSA provides more flexibility to states, limits the federal role in education policy, and includes provisions to encourage innovation in assessment policy and practice.

    -States must establish targets for improving outcomes and closing achievement and graduation gaps, but they do this by establishing their own achievement goals.

    -State academic standards are not submitted to the Secretary of Education for approval, and the Secretary is expressly prohibited from encouraging states to pick a particular set of standards.

    -The requirement that states use student achievement outcomes in teacher evaluation has been dropped and federal mandates on teacher evaluation have been prohibited more generally.

    -Computer adaptive assessments are allowed and specifically encouraged for assessing students on content above grade level.

    -The use of nationally recognized assessments in high schools is allowed.

    -States are given some flexibility to implement their own opt-out policies, and concerns about too much testing are addressed with provisions for auditing assessment systems, eliminating unnecessary tests, and reporting publically the time spent on testing in schools.

    -Innovation is encouraged through tryouts in as many as seven states of new assessments utilizing new ways of demonstrating mastery.

    In these and other ways, ESSA has responded to the challenges evident in NCLB, some lessons learned through the recent era of Common Core assessments, and shifting public sentiment about the role of assessment in public education.

    The reauthorization of NCLB was long overdue. In navigating our way forward it will be important to learn from both the successes and setbacks of the recent and distant past.

    Before NCLB, state assessments were much more diverse. States focused their assessments on different grade levels, used different testing approaches including performance, portfolio and multiple choice formats, and leveraged both custom and publisher-created assessment elements at the state and district levels. The variety was greater, but the technical quality was uneven, a narrow conception of standardization limited accessibility, and the accountability systems used demographics in ways that were interpreted as lowering expectations for communities with the greatest needs.

    During the NCLB era testing expanded dramatically and there was little oxygen (i.e., money) to support assessment approaches that did not scale up to very large volumes. Implementations across the states became less diverse, and accountability provisions became more controversial and problematic. Technical quality remained uneven and technical innovation was constrained.

    As NCLB’s accountability provisions proved increasingly unworkable, states have been operating under waivers and working together in new ways. Common Core State Standards were widely adopted, and common assessments have been built using a mix of new models for state collaboration and traditional models of publisher investment and state adoption.

    There has been a healthy recognition of the economic imperative for higher academic standards, and an understanding that states could leverage high quality assessments built beyond their borders and outside of the direct control of their state agencies. There have been technical, policy, economic, and political challenges in this environment as well, a number of which are playing out in evolving state policies and also reflected in provisions of the new ESSA law.

    The educational measurement profession has a great deal to offer in this dynamic policy landscape. We bring an understanding of the standards and best practices that are the foundation of sound educational assessments, the technical expertise necessary to ensure accurate and meaningful achievement data supports policy objectives, and more than a little practical wisdom about how assessment programs can be structured and implemented successfully.

    Now is an opportune time for members of NCME to be engaging with colleagues working in K-12 education, offering assistance as peer reviewers, technical advisors, and/or as interested and engaged scholars. We have a wealth of
    relevant research to share in addition to our expertise and experience, all of which is needed if we are to allow empirical evidence and solid science to guide us on the long path to an educational system in which every student succeeds.

    Learn more about Every Student Succeeds Act: