What Do State Lawmakers Need to Know About K-12 Accountability Assessments?

Student assessment takes up a much larger share of K-12 education policy today than it did even a few decades ago. Correspondingly, it looms much larger in the public consciousness. Controversy abounds over “drill and kill” test prep, the possibility of harsh consequences for poor performance on tests, loss of instructional time, and teaching to tests.

As the volume of debate on statewide standardized testing has risen, so has interest from state legislatures. Previously, most legislatures played a relatively small role in selecting state accountability assessments, usually the purview of the state education agency and/or state board. But as constituents have raised concerns about testing, examples abound of state legislatures—Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut and Indiana, for instance—making major, far-reaching forays into K-12 assessment policy in recent years.

The public debate around testing shows no sign of losing steam, and it seems unlikely that legislators will lose interest in state assessment policy any time soon. If they are to provide informed input into the selection process for state assessments, lawmakers must build a strong understanding of how educational assessments (particularly those used for state and federal accountability) work. A new report out today from New America’s Education Policy Program, Recipe for Success: What State Lawmakers Need to Know About K-12 Accountability Assessments, provides a guide for legislators and other policymakers on the choices and tradeoffs inherent to this process.

Choosing assessments can be thought of something like meal planning—though each state might follow a slightly different recipe to achieve success, the rules of cooking will generally remain the same. Recipe for Success highlights several key considerations that all state policymakers should keep in mind when helping select accountability assessments:

Start with goals, not tests: Rather than starting the selection process with a test in mind, states should begin with their goals for improving schools. Working in this order, policymakers are more likely to select assessments that are good tools for helping to meet their state’s goals. 

One test cannot meet all uses: Any given assessment is designed for one or several specific uses. Extending any given assessment to meet many different uses risks compromising the assessment’s validity.

Trade-offs are inevitable: Because one assessment cannot meet all uses (nor all design specifications), policymakers should expect to make trade-offs when selecting new assessments.

Coherence is key: States must view their assessments as part of a coherent system that spans kindergarten through 12th grade. Goals for student learning build on one another, and assessments must do the same.

Constituents don’t uniformly dislike standardized testing: It would be a mistake to assume that assessment in K-12 schools is uniformly unpopular. Recent public opinion research paints a conflicted picture of Americans’ views of testing in K-12 schools.

There are complex requirements and tradeoffs inherent in selecting assessments for statewide use. Armed with a strong understanding of these realities, lawmakers are more likely to make recommendations that save time and money, better meet the needs of those using assessments, and cultivate buy-in from a broader group of stakeholders.

ATTACHMENTs:

Recipe for Success
Report Primer

Author:

Abigail Swisher is a program associate with the Education Policy program at New America. She is a member of the PreK-12 team, where her work focuses primarily on college- and career-ready policies.