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Better Ways to Measure Student Learning

There's a lot of room for improvement in the way we do standardized tests. Some states are experimenting with innovative approaches.

Students doing an experiment in a science classroom.
"Test" has become a four-letter word in schools, as many states face political pressure to cut, minimize or deemphasize their much-maligned annual standardized assessments of student achievement. The most common complaints are that these tests do little to help teachers do their jobs well and can distract from more important aspects of teaching and learning.

But if standardized state tests aren't useful in the classroom and aren't informing instruction, that's a problem that can be fixed even with current federal law mandating annual tests in math and reading. Instead of indiscriminately cutting back on statewide testing, states need to think about approaching them differently and look beyond typical end-of-year tests. Reducing investment to the barest minimum could leave students and schools worse off, without good information on achievement gaps, student growth, or college and career readiness.

The quality of these tests in most states has come a long way in the past 20 years, but many questions remain about their value and the limitations of what can be measured with a single test. Investment in innovative assessments and smart state policy can answer some of these concerns with well-rounded systems that help educators understand how students are progressing in the classroom and better track how historically underserved students are faring. Two states, New Hampshire and Louisiana, offer particularly promising examples of what these approaches can look like.

New Hampshire has spent the past several years building interactive, performance-based, teacher-designed assessments in math, reading and science. These efforts are part of the state's initiative to expand "competency-based education," where students earn credit for demonstrating mastery of skills rather than for merely spending time in seats. The state has shown that with the right systems in place, performance tasks designed and scored by teachers can meet the same bar for validity and reliability as traditional standardized tests. For teachers, the process of working together to design, administer and score the tasks provides hands-on opportunities to collaborate and learn about state standards and effective assessment practices.

Louisiana is moving toward an approach that combines curriculum change with new modes of state assessment. In the state's humanities pilot, combining English language arts with social studies, students will be tested on books and articles they've read in class, not random excerpts they've just seen for the first time. This way, students can dig deeper into familiar content to demonstrate knowledge. Additionally, in this pilot, Louisiana's state tests will be administered in smaller bursts throughout the year, not all at once at the very end. This model is still new, but it is designed to better support strong interdisciplinary teaching and learning through the school year.

While Louisiana and New Hampshire are among the most ambitious and innovative states in assessment right now, much more is possible. States could imagine interactive, simulation-based tests that combine science and math skills. Or test content could be seamlessly woven into class curriculum so that big "test weeks" become a thing of the past. Simply recommending high-quality curricular materials and aligned assessments for teachers to use in class, while cutting out duplicative or out-of-date tests, would put many states miles ahead of where we are now.

Louisiana and New Hampshire both sought out federal waivers to do this work. But states don't need a federal permission slip to substantially improve and innovate their systems of assessments. In our new policy brief, "The State of Assessment," my colleague Brandon Lewis and I highlight work already happening with science and social studies tests, interstate collaborations and alternatives to end-of-year tests.

Beyond states that are well-known for their innovative approaches, there is a larger group of states making gradual shifts in their assessment systems, largely under the radar. There are risks and benefits to consider with each of these ideas, but instead of shooting them down in the name of less testing, let's discuss the honest tradeoffs and consider how assessments can play a role in an equitable and quality education for all students.

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