Future of Assessments: Centering Equity and the Lived Experiences of Students, Families, and Educators
Addressing inequities in the educational outcomes — particularly for students of color and students from low-income backgrounds — cannot happen without comparable data from statewide summative assessments. Statewide assessment results help schools and district leaders target state and local resources to the students and schools with the greatest need and track whether these resources are impacting student achievement.
Despite this, many educators, students, and families say that federal assessment and accountability policies take away from instructional time without providing actionable data. Meanwhile, pandemic pauses in administering statewide assessments and changes in political dynamics at the state and federal levels have opened a window of opportunity to develop new statewide summative assessments that gauge how students are doing, highlight disparities, and show where interventions aren’t measuring up to their promise and might be improved.
This report centers the lived experiences and perspectives of students, families, educators, and district and state leaders, so that they can be used to design assessments that provide data that will enable us to promote equitable learning opportunities and improve outcomes for all students.
To better understand how directly impacted communities experience statewide assessments, we held focus groups with diverse stakeholders who are on the ground, focusing on those who are often underserved.
Our focus group discussions not only shed light on the unique challenges facing each stakeholder group, but also highlighted some common experiences and ideas for improvement that align with some of the longstanding debates around summative assessments. Across all focus groups of students, caregivers, educators, and administrators, we heard that:
- Data from multiple sources, including and not solely assessment data, is important for understanding students’ opportunities and progress toward state standards for college readiness.
- Stakeholders currently use, or want to use, summative assessments for different purposes, and many expressed confusion or frustration about how assessments are used.
- Assessments are only one indicator of college readiness, and stakeholders are eager for additional information on student knowledge and skills.
- There are common recommendations for improvement, including the need to have timely assessment results, remove racial and/or cultural bias from assessments, and make assessment results more useful and accessible.
- All stakeholder groups said that they would like to see better follow-through on resource allocation. They noted that education systems often fall short when it comes to using assessment systems to allocate resources and supports to the schools that need them most.
The focus group findings led us to develop four “equity pillars,” which highlight our key values and identify criteria for improving federal assessment policy:
- Pillar 1 – Ensure Consistent, High Expectations for Student Success
- Pilar 2 – Encourage Relevant, Inclusive Assessments
- Pillar 3 – Provide Timely, Actionable, and Easily Accessible Results
- Pillar 4 – Make Assessment Results Meaningful
These equity pillars represent what we view as a framework for any forthcoming federal policy action on assessments, including the reauthorization of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), and are grounded in Ed Trust’s equity-centered values and the lived experiences of those students who are often underserved by our public school system: students of color, students from low-income backgrounds, students with disabilities, and English learners.
This framework includes recommendations for developing better and more useful assessments through new or revised federal policies. Our hope is that these equity pillars and federal policy recommendations — both for a future reauthorization of ESSA and more immediate federal action — will spur conversations and debates among students, families, educators, state and district leaders, advocates, and policymakers, so that we might work together to ensure that future assessments provide data that can help educators and policymakers identify and address longstanding educational inequities.
Which Assessments Are We Talking About?
Throughout this report, when we refer to assessments, unless otherwise indicated, we’re discussing statewide summative assessments, which are year-end tests administered to all students across a state. Statewide summative assessments provide insights on the extent to which students have mastered grade-level content that is aligned to state college and career readiness academic standards. Per federal law, math and English language arts assessments are administered in grades 3-8 and once in high school; science assessments are administered once in grades 3-5, 6-9, and 10-12.
One parent said: “I think helping prepare Black and Latino and other underserved children for college, isn’t just about how the children score. I think it’s about looking at the holistic environment of the school they’re in, the school environment, the levels of equitable access to resources. There’s this child opportunity index from Brandeis, which is a remarkable look at neighborhood level equity, in terms of what resources children and families have access to by zip code.”
Our focus group discussions not only shed light on the unique challenges facing each stakeholder group, but also highlighted some common experiences and ideas for improvement that align with some of the longstanding debates around summative assessments:
- Students, caregivers, educators, and administrators believe data is important for understanding student opportunities and progress.
- Students, caregivers, educators, and administrations use, or want to use, summative assessments for different purposes. When we asked stakeholders what the purpose of assessments is and how they use assessments, we received different answers from each stakeholder group that were, at times, in tension with one another.
- Students, caregivers, educators, and administrators see assessments as only one indicator of college readiness: Stakeholders said that college success goes beyond what statewide assessments can measure.
- Students, caregivers, educators, and administrators had overlapping recommendations for assessment improvements: Stakeholders suggested various ways to improve statewide assessments. All stakeholder groups agreed that there is a need to get results in a timelier manner
- Stakeholder groups would like to see better follow-through on resource allocation. Across all groups, we heard that education systems often fall short when it comes to using assessment systems to allocate resources and supports to the schools that need them most.
Federal Policy Recommendations
We view the aforementioned equity pillars as critical backstops for any forthcoming federal policy action on assessments — including the reauthorization of ESSA — and they are grounded in Ed Trust’s equity-centered values and the lived experiences of stakeholders closest to assessments, particularly those traditionally underserved by our public school system, such as students of color, students from low-income backgrounds, students with disabilities, and English learners.
Reauthorization must maintain the fundamental provisions of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), as reauthorized under ESSA, that serve as vital civil rights protections. These include, but are not limited to, the requirement for annual statewide summative assessments that are: valid, reliable, and comparable; included with significant weight among multiple measures in the state’s accountability system; and publicly reported by disaggregated student group.
Maintaining current requirements for annual assessments for English language arts and math in grades 3-8 and once in high school is vital to any future reauthorization of ESSA. It is also vital that these assessments align to standards of validity, reliability, and comparability and that the results are disaggregated and publicly reported. Annual assessments are critical to the ability to measure growth over time and provide consistent equity-focused checks on school systems.
Anything less frequent than annual administration of statewide assessments — including the use of disaggregated data, which is key to identifying and addressing inequities — would severely impact the ability of systems leaders to make data informed decisions.
Reauthorization should require each state to conduct a technical analysis at least every five years, or when standards are revised, of the alignment between proficiency on the state’s assessments and public college entrance expectations for credit-bearing college courses, as suggested by section 1111(b)(1)(D), as well as the skills and competencies required for career success. This analysis would need to be conducted by an entity with technical expertise; incorporate stakeholder engagement with students, families, educators, colleges, and employers; certified by the governor; and be made widely available to the public.
Just as states regularly review and update their academic standards to ensure alignment with college and career readiness, states also need to consistently check that state assessments validly and reliably measure student performance against these standards. While current law requires alignment between state standards and assessments, no specific requirements exist for the regular review of this alignment based on changes to state standards or the skills that states — including institutions of higher education — deemed necessary for success in college or careers.
Reauthorization or the appropriations process should be used to create a research and development fund through the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) to incentivize states and vendors to develop and implement resources for racially and culturally inclusive assessment practices and content that measures higher-order thinking skills and understanding, including specifically addressing the needs of students with disabilities and English learners; that are partially delivered in the form of portfolios, projects, or extended performance tasks; and that are consistent with section 1111(b)(2)(B)(vi).
Reauthorization or federal regulations should require that the Department’s peer review process under sections 1111(a)(4) and 1111(b)(2)(B)(iii)-(iv) for evaluating the technical quality of state assessment systems specifically considers whether assessments are racially and culturally responsive and sustaining.
Reauthorization or the appropriations process should be used to refocus the CGSA program to implement faster, more actionable, and understandable reporting to students, families (including in multiple languages), and educators; disaggregate data transparency and reporting; and increase family engagement with assessment results.
As discussed earlier and reflected in our focus groups, a major criticism of summative assessments concerns the time it takes to receive statewide assessment results and the usability of reports. It routinely takes four to eight months to get results — they often arrive well into the next school year — which limits their usefulness for school and district leaders and educators.
3.2: Increase transparency on state assessment practices to encourage better state/local decision-making
Reauthorization should build on the assessment system audits envisioned under section 1202 by requiring that the Department produce an annual report summarizing the dates of each state’s assessment window and aggregating data that states would be required to make publicly available each year on the date by which student score reports are provided to families; the date school report cards are made available to the public; and the total assessment time for federal-, state-, and district-required assessments (separately) in each of the state’s school districts.