Although standardized assessment has a long history in U.S. public education, prior to 2001, there was little reliable, yearly data available about how students from kindergarten through twelfth grade were performing in the key subject areas of English language arts, mathematics, and science. Beginning with the 2001 renewal of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), entitled No Child Left Behind (NCLB), states have been required to test students in English language arts and mathematics yearly between the 3rd and 8th grades, and once in high school. States are also required to test students in science three times: once between grades 3-5, once between grades 6-8 and once in high school.
In order to meet federal requirements for high school assessment, some states require a comprehensive assessment for both English language arts and mathematics just once in high school to meet federal testing requirements. Other states require a series of end-of-course examinations for each English language arts and mathematics course (and often in other subject areas as well); states with end-of-course exams often choose one assessment in English language arts and one in mathematics to use for federal testing requirements, or average all assessments in each subject area to create a composite score.
Under NCLB, states were required to develop and administer assessments for these grades, but were free to determine the standards upon which tests were based, as well as the level of achievement that would be considered “proficient.” These proficiency scores, disaggregated by subgroup, would be used as part of the formula to determine each school, district, and state’s yearly progress.
As data from each state’s assessments began to be reported and compared to state scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP, often called ‘the Nation’s Report Card’), it became clear that states had set the bar for proficiency at drastically different levels. In 2005, for example, 87 percent of Tennessee’s fourth graders tested proficient on their state mathematics test, while just 28 percent scored proficient on the NAEP. Conversely, 40 percent of Massachusetts’ fourth graders were deemed proficient on their state’s math test; this converged much more closely with the 41 percent proficiency rate for those students on the NAEP. Borne out of this disconnect, states partnered to create a nationally comparable set of academic standards and assessments that would provide all students with a rigorous, college and career preparatory education.
With the most recent renewal of ESEA in 2015, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the requirement to test yearly in third through eighth grades and once more in high school will remain the same, though states will be given considerably more freedom to determine how much test scores will weigh in school accountability.