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alternatives to standardized testing
A student takes a quiz at a high school in Ossining, N.Y. Credit: Jackie Mader/The Hechinger Report

Trendy styles tend to flare and fade, only to reappear decades later, back in vogue with a new generation. Education innovation can follow a similar pattern.

In the early 1990s, Kentucky districts were among those grading student portfolios and assessing performance tasks, instead of standardized tests, and they found themselves on the cutting edge of educational assessment. More than 25 years later, some of the country’s most forward-thinking schools are embracing these strategies once again.

And while the No Child Left Behind education law made it hard to use anything but multiple-choice-based standardized tests, its replacement, the Every Student Succeeds Act, opens the door for a course correction – or at least it unlocks that door.

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The reason some schools today are developing performance-based assessments, where students are graded on their ability to apply things they learn in class in scenarios that reflect the real world, is because advocates argue they uniquely evaluate skills students need to succeed in their future careers.

But multiple choice-based standardized tests are cheaper to administer, and with strict annual testing requirements enshrined in federal law since No Child Left Behind, they have become the easier path to compliance.

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“[No Child Left Behind] pushed us all away from anything that might be considered innovative or performance-based, because it was so structured in terms of what we had to measure,” said David Cook, director of the Division of Innovation and Partner Engagement in the Kentucky Department of Education. “It’s almost like we all had to serve that master.”

The new education law creates an opening for states to change course. An “innovative assessment pilot” offers up to seven states an exemption from testing requirements that say every student in every district must take a statewide test annually in math and reading from third through eighth grade and once in high school, and be tested three times in science. In states that get accepted into the pilot, a portion of districts will be able to skip these standardized tests and assess their students using methods like performance-based tasks instead.

“[No Child Left Behind] pushed us all away from anything that might be considered innovative or performance-based, because it was so structured in terms of what we had to measure.”

Unfortunately for states like Kentucky that have been wanting to get back to this model for decades, there are some pretty big caveats.

First, the pilot requires states to commit to creating a new statewide assessment system using their chosen innovative methods. Yes, they can start out with a few districts, but the point is to eventually scale the new system to all of them. And not all districts want to do performance-based assessments.

That’s an important catch for Kentucky education leaders who are considering whether or not to apply for the pilot.

“I’m not sure that’s where we are going,” Cook said.

The assessment pilot also doesn’t give states any extra money to create these new systems. And it’s a labor-intensive, costly process, in part because of some of the other rules tied to the pilot. For example, states have to show that the alternative assessments measure comparable skills as the statewide tests. They can’t decide to measure something completely different, or leave it up to districts to measure what they find most important. The alternative assessments also have to meet nationally recognized standards for technical quality, standards that Lillian Pace, senior director of national policy at the nonprofit group KnowledgeWorks, said were written and designed for standardized, statewide assessments, not performance-based, local ones.

The Department of Education is expected to release the application materials for the assessment pilot this winter. Pace doesn’t expect seven states will apply, considering all the challenges that will follow, but New Hampshire, Georgia, Hawaii and New York have stated in their ESSA state plans that they intend to.

New Hampshire’s early commitment is not surprising, as its competency-based assessment system is widely credited with creating the impetus for the federal pilot. Pace doesn’t expect the seven-state cap to hold any states back, though. She said it’s more likely the department will continue offering application cycles until it gets seven states on board. After three years, the cap expires anyway. From there, the secretary of education can invite more states to apply.

“I think once we see the Department put this opportunity out, we will then begin to see the momentum generate and we’ll start to see true state interest emerge,” Pace said.

In Kentucky, Cook said the state plans to pursue its own assessment pilot.

Since districts that participate will commit to using the statewide standardized test along with the alternative, they don’t need any special permission from Washington. And that seems to be the way they like it for now.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

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