ESSA proposes a better alternative to testing

Under the No Child Left Behind Act, students, schools and teachers have all been graded by student standardized test scores — despite the fact that studies have not been able to demonstrate conclusively that such a system is effective in increasing achievement. Schools should not measure teachers based on how students perform on exams. As this column has previously stated, it leads to an emphasis on teaching directly to the state accountability exam, thereby ignoring long-term goals.

But how can schools reduce the burden of testing while maintaining high standards? The Every Student Succeeds Act, signed by President Barack Obama last December, provides a potential solution. With this bill, according to the president, “we reaffirm that fundamental American ideal that every child, regardless of race, income, background, the zip code where they live, deserves the chance to make out of their lives what they will.” Now that No Child Left Behind, which heavily focused on a test-based accountability system, has been retired in favor of this new piece of legislation, ESSA provides states with an opportunity to create new assessment systems.

However, problems still remain; ESSA is supposed to reduce the burden of testing while maintaining annual information for parents and students, in order to help students and schools improve. Though ESSA shifts states away from high-stakes testing as a means of keeping schools accountable, it largely ignores the impact of a student’s socioeconomic status on his/her academic achievement.

A report known as FairTest details how a system centered around ESSA could be constructed. Under the new law, states shift accountability away from schools and teachers, and instead allow them to focus on providing genuine help to improve educational quality and equity. This new legislation includes an “Innovative Assessment” pilot project, which has already been proved successful in other programs like the New York Performance Standards Consortium and the International Baccalaureate program. A new method of assessing students’ thinking could include an observation by a teacher, a conversation between a student and teacher or reviewing a student’s work. These revised methods of interaction provide teachers with a valuable way to provide feedback, and a new way to determine a student’s depth of knowledge instead of relying on test scores.

However, under ESSA, districts would be subject to comparability measures to ensure whether students deemed proficient in one district would receive a similar evaluation in another. To fulfill ESSA’s public reporting and accountability requirements, FairTest’s model relies on classroom-based evidence, where teachers and students gather examples of learning throughout the school year. Then, with these examples, teachers prepare a summative evaluation of each pupil, which determines the student’s level of proficiency based on state standards. Overall, FairTest’s model is intended to help states design flexible systems that provide accountability measures other than traditional test-based ones, such as new assessment and comparability measures.

One major flaw, however, cannot be overlooked; ESSA largely ignores the impact of a student’s socioeconomic status on his or her learning. The FairTest approach focuses on how much a student learns from year one to year two, which is largely determined by the wealth of the student and the student’s school.

Similar to other efforts to measure school quality by measuring student achievement, FairTest’s model will demonstrate what is already known in education — that higher socioeconomic status schools are “good,”  and lower socioeconomic status schools are “bad.” In fact, the socioeconomic status of a child’s parents has always been one of the best predictors of the child’s academic achievement and educational attainment. Students with wealthier parents tend to attend schools that have greater levels of funding, which results in greater access to extracurricular activities, classroom resources, counseling services and more rigorous academic courses.

Until teachers, schools and states can better understand and subsequently address the effects of wealth on students’ level of achievement, legislation like ESSA and schools models like FairTest’s will only partly remedy the educational attainment gaps that exist between students of different classes. Nonetheless, this legislation and the new FairTest model are monumental and important steps.

Julia Lawler is a senior majoring  in history and social science education. Her column, “Get Schooled,” runs Fridays.