ESSA and Performance Assessments: Where States Go From Here

Published oct. 26, 2016

No, the real challenge today has to do with the politics of assessment and accountability. The power to shape educational policymaking has been thrown open to all 50 states, and within each state many actors have their hands in decision making, from superintendents and governors to legislators, state and district boards of education, big-city mayors, university presidents, business leaders, teachers' unions, local philanthropists, community activists, and more.  

In short, states will have to get a lot of ducks in a row before they can make serious efforts to shift from an NCLB-style accountability system to one that emphasizes the use of high-quality performance assessments. And that will be no easy task, given today's ultra-polarized political climate.

Recently, the state of New Hampshire has attracted considerable attention for its success in cultivating a broad base of support for district- and teacher-led performance assessment systems. But many in the policy world are wondering whether other states will be able to follow suit. Will this sort of large-scale performance assessment turn out to be a rare bird, found only in the Granite State, or can it flourish in other parts of the country?  

And now for the hopeful news: judging by what I saw recently at Assessing for Deeper Learning: A Transformative Pathway to Prepare Virginia Students for the Future—a summit on performance assessment hosted by Jobs for the Future and the Virginia Department of Education held at the University of Virginia and attended by more than 400 educators from 85 districts—Virginia could be the next state to take flight.  

As local officials freely acknowledge, their work has only just begun. In 2014, the Virginia legislature moved to eliminate a number of history, writing, and science tests in grades 3-8, and it required districts to replace them with locally designed alternative assessments. Since then, progress has been uneven, with some districts racing ahead to design and pilot new measures, while others have yet to move past the planning stages.

However, while it may be too early to say how things will play out, Virginia does seem well-positioned to succeed. At this point, the initiative has strong, bipartisan support from the legislature and the state board of education, as well as buy-in from the Governor, major business figures, higher education leaders, and others. The department of education has been careful to provide districts with technical assistance as needed, drawing upon local experts whenever possible. And perhaps most important, the work is proceeding on a timeline that is both realistic and flexible--while every district is expected to design and roll out its new assessments within five years, each is free to decide when to go slow and when to race ahead.

For all of us who are anxious to see states take advantage of the opportunity that ESSA provides to rethink assessment and accountability, Virginia bears close watching. It still has a long way to go, but for now, if you're looking for a good, strategically sound example of how to move this work forward state-wide, building strong political coalitions as well as grassroots support, here it is.