How important are standard assessments? It depends on who you ask. Teachers generally agree that testing is important—but also that traditional bubble-sheet exams can feel more like an interruption than a key component of inquiry-based teaching and learning. Families want to know that students are on track for college or career, but also tend to put more stock in classroom grades than standardized scores. State and system leaders rely on testing programs for critical accountability data to shape policy and program decisions. But for individual schools, classrooms and students—particularly in historically marginalized communities—the insights are incomplete.
Across these many perspectives, one thing is clear. Current tests don’t tell us all that we need to know. But what if they could?
What if a Massachusetts science exam asked middle schoolers to perform an experiment, collect data and analyze it to answer far-ranging questions about water use? What if the KIPP charter network assessed school quality by counting positive examples of an engaging, healthy culture, like the number of students in enrichment activities? What if Texas schools gave shorter standards-aligned tests three times during the school year, so students had more than one chance to demonstrate learning and teachers could use the results to tailor instruction?
These are among five new visions for assessment being piloted in the 2022–23 school year, as part of the Innovations in Assessment and New Measures Grant Program. The grantees include three state education agencies—Massachusetts, New Mexico and Texas—and two charter-management organizations—KIPP Public Schools and Summit Public Schools. The program is led by Education First and funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Walton Family Foundation.
The grantees’ efforts are as diverse as the organizations and the communities they serve. Yet they hold one quality in common: each approach was crafted using human-centered design with an equity lens, in partnership with the students, families and educators whose needs are not fully met by our current systems. After three years of listening, reimagining, co-designing, and carefully building out new assessments, we are sharing this progress report to the field.
The work began in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic, which shut schools down nationwide and caused states to pause annual testing programs. Amid these vast disruptions, states, educators, advocates and communities asked hard questions about the role and influence of traditional assessments of student and school performance.
Whose needs were being met by traditional assessments? Why did current testing programs prioritize sorting and comparing students to standards and one another—assessment of learning—rather than serve as engaging learning experiences to diagnose strengths and monitor progress—assessment for learning? What did the people closest to the classroom, such as students, teachers, families and school leaders, consider the strengths and challenges of current assessments? What types of institutional, systemic and ideological biases influenced the experiences of some individuals and groups?
The importance of maintaining high-quality, standards-aligned assessments was not in question. The detailed data such tests provide are crucial: they show which pathways are more and less successful for students, diagnose trends and opportunities across states and systems, and hold educators and policymakers to account for the persistent challenges that students experience who are BIPOC, from families experiencing poverty or are English-language learners.
Yet public patience with standard assessments is fraying. And we have not yet realized the full potential of testing programs to directly benefit teaching and learning. That insight inspired the twin focuses of this program: Grantees would not only craft innovative approaches to assessment, they also would intentionally co-create these solutions with the students, teachers and families closest to the current system. These efforts have created innovative solutions to meet local needs, which we detail in a series of case studies. But they also have established new models of assessment and accountability with relevance to schools and systems across the country. They include:
- In Massachusetts, the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education worked with teachers and students to create new standardized science tests that include computer-based science simulation tasks, to build on ongoing efforts to expand deeper learning opportunities more equitably across the state.
- In New Mexico, the state Public Education Department and advocates partnered to revamp high-school graduation requirements to better meet the needs of culturally and linguistically diverse students. This includes holistic new graduate profiles and capstone projects, which allow communities to articulate what high school graduates should know and be able to do and give students the opportunity to demonstrate competency in a relevant local context.
- In Texas, the state Education Agency surveyed a broad array of students, teachers and system leaders to develop new standards-aligned through-year assessments, or interim statewide tests that give teachers insights into student learning throughout the school year. Tests taken three times a year can help monitor student progress, inform classroom instruction and potentially replace once-a-year summative exams.
- The nationwide KIPP Public Schools charter network, as part of ongoing efforts to become an anti-racist organization, created a new school-culture metric. This assessment tool measures school quality according to major priorities identified by parents and students: positive indicators of student engagement, safety, and nurtured, authentic success.
- And Summit Public Schools, a charter network in California and Washington State, worked with teachers and student design teams to expand its focus on post-graduation pathways and sharpen students’ experiences during career-connected community-based learning opportunities that are part of its core model. That included establishing new methods of feedback and assessment for these non-graded experiences to measure the knowledge, skills and habits that students need to succeed after high school.