DeVos: States should ‘rethink’ assessment, consider competency, mastery-based assessments

Dive Brief:

  • In a letter this week telling chief state school officers they will be expected to administer summative assessments for the 2020-21 school year, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos encouraged state leaders to consider competency and mastery-based assessments.  
  • “Now may be the perfect time for you to rethink assessment in your state,” DeVos said, adding testing this year may look different. 
  • She also said the department would be “open to discussions” about flexibilities for using assessment results as part of states’ school accountability metrics. 

Dive Insight:

DeVos said while waiving assessments last spring was “the right call,” failing to assess students this year “will have lasting effects for years to come,” noting the exams are necessary to gauge student performance. 

Pushes to overhaul standardized and high-stakes testing that were growing prior to the COVID-19 pandemic have been renewed in light of recent school closures. However, with expected but unclear learning losses following closures and the summer break, educators, parents, researchers and legislators have also expressed the need to gather relevant and useful data to inform instruction for the school year. 

Many are planning to use diagnostic and interim assessments, for example. But, leaders and grassroots advocates in some places were still hoping to waive statewide summative tests this school year in favor of more instruction time. Testing experts have also said summative assessments, in their current form, take place too late in the year and are not tied closely to curriculum, which make it unlikely for the tests to support instruction.

In Georgia’s request for a 2020-21 assessment waiver, Gov. Brian P. Kemp and State School Superintendent Richard Woods said their request was part of a larger push against high-stakes testing.

But testing experts don’t believe there will be a massive shift away from statewide summative testing anytime soon. They do, however, suggest states and districts work together to create a comprehensive assessment system that aligns the purposes and uses of statewide summative and interim testing. Nebraska, for example, is working to overlap tests so students in grades 3-8 only take three interim assessments from which summative information is collected, eliminating a fourth summative exam.

That method, said Jeremy Heneger, director of statewide assessment at the Nebraska Department of Education, would stress growth rather than proficiency and emphasize instructional feedback. Both of those have been the focus of educators as students learn from home in different environments and at varying paces. 

Some states have gone one step further than emphasizing growth, saying results should also be disentangled from stakes like accountability measures. Carolyn Phenicie, spokesperson for the Council of Chief State School Officers, said accountability waivers are “an evolving situation.” 

In a request for comment, the state chiefs organization reiterated its view that high-quality annual assessments to measure learning and identify gaps are “more important than ever.” A number of other organizations have also released guidance on assessment best practices for the school year. For example, one of NWEA’s suggestions is that states make adjustments and investments in secure hybrid learning and remotely proctored assessments in the long term.

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