May 10, 2016
The new law was sold to legislators and the public as a measure to cut duplicative assessments and decrease time spent on test prep. In reality, it is unlikely to do either. There is no reason to believe that allowing states to choose the assessment will lessen the amount of time students spend preparing for exams. More troubling, this flexibility also has significant potential to reduce the quality of education for many of Arizona’s students; present a serious challenge to families seeking the best schools for their student; and even violate federal law.
One of the most significant benefits of AzMERIT is that it is currently common to all Arizona schools. Common assessments set a common bar for proficiency, and ensure that all districts must work to meet the same high standard for all students. Scores on AzMERIT suggest that many schools, especially those serving students of color and those living in rural poverty, have far to go to meet a high bar. A common assessment shines light on this discrepancy, but that light will become increasingly dimmer when Arizona’s districts are each allowed to adopt different measures of student achievement.
Given a menu of assessments, which can vary based on difficulty and on the knowledge and skills tested, districts that are not meeting a high bar for student achievement have an implicit incentive to pick the least rigorous exam. And if there is an incentive to choose the easiest test, there is also a clear disincentive for districts to administer more difficult assessments because the results will not look as good, further prompting a “race to the bottom.”
Arizona’s lawmakers, no doubt cognizant of this risk, wrote language into legislation mandating that all schools currently earning D through F school report card grades be required to continue administering AzMERIT. This is certainly a step in the direction of ensuring that those lowest-performing districts are held to a high standard, but still provides a great deal more wiggle room than a common assessment, and poses a risk to students in schools outside this range. It also holds the potential for schools currently straddling the line between C and D to use testing choices strategically to prevent themselves from earning a lower grade in the future.
The confusing picture painted for policymakers won’t be any clearer for families. If districts discontinue use of AzMERIT, families choosing between schools will have a challenging task ahead: comparing different results across different schools from different assessments. This is a complex enough task for experts on assessment, much less the average citizen, who may soon be faced with a dizzying array of examinations to compare between.
In addition to the danger it poses to the state’s least advantaged students, the legislation has the potential to violate federal law. Federal law has required statewide assessment since 1994, and while the recently-passed Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) gives districts the option to select their own high school assessments (pending approval from the state), it does not explicitly grant the same flexibility for elementary and middle schools. Ultimately, this question has yet to be decided—ESSA is so new that detailed regulations for the law are still being written, which means that many of the technical aspects of the law have yet to be decided. Until this process is complete, the legality of Arizona’s new approach remains an open question. When asked about the new law, U.S. Secretary of Education John King said that he was unfamiliar with it, but did note that ESSA "is very clear on having comparable state results. Throughout ESSA discussion there was a clear commitment to comparable statewide results so that you can figure out achievement gaps and act on those. That was a fundamental principle for us throughout the ESSA discussions."
There is also the question of how assessment flexibility will affect Arizona’s charter schools. Under Arizona state law,charter schools are required to administer whatever statewide assessment traditional schools administer. This new legislation makes no mention of charter schools, so it is unclear whether or not new flexibilities will apply to them.
The state’s legislation was intended to address concerns about time spent preparing for and taking tests. But there is no reason to believe that allowing states to choose the assessment will lessen the amount of time teachers and students spend preparing for these exams. The incentives to do well on exams remain the same, so there is no reason for schools to change the way that they prepare students to take them. If there is an appetite to address test preparation strategies, it will take teachers, schools and districts thinking critically about how they prepare students for exams to achieve change.
As AzMERIT has rolled out and families have seen their students’ scores drop, there is bound to be concern, and perhaps the desire for schools to step back from an assessment that feels too difficult. But instead of backing away, this should be a signal to lean in: low scores on an exam that assesses readiness for college and career are a signal that students are not yet receiving the high-quality education that they deserve. Rather than undermining a challenging exam, districts should be searching for ways to better support students to do well on it."