Report from convenings of 100+ experts proposes federal, state actions to address immediate needs and long-term improvements related to assessments and accountability

4 challenges–and solutions–around assessments and accountability


A new report proposes federal and state actions to address immediate and long-term improvements related to assessments and accountability

A new report examines some of the biggest challenges related to assessments and accountability, and offers recommendations for educators and policymakers as they move past spring 2021 and aim to improve student success rates.

The report comes from NWEA and Education Reform Now (ERN), which worked together with organizations representing state departments of education, school districts, policy and advocacy groups, and universities, to identify recommendations and potential policy options that re-envision assessments and accountability measures this spring—and–beyond to better advance student success.

The overall goal? Through productive meetings and discussions, identify ways to ensure systems support deeper learning and give educators and policymakers the critical data they need to support students, improve achievement and outcomes, target resources, and develop new instructional policies and practices.

“Given all the changes in the last year, from remote learning to returning to the classroom, there has never been a more critical time to ensure that assessment and accountability systems are doing what they are supposed to – drive positive student outcomes and school improvements. This requires a rethinking of traditional measures and evaluating how current policies and practices are working,” said Chris Minnich, CEO of NWEA, in a press release. “With a data-informed lens, NWEA is dedicated to supporting state and district leaders in changing systems that have not given us the complete picture of student learning. The time is now to reconsider the system and include a more comprehensive view of student success.”

The abrupt shift to virtual learning brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic has cast a spotlight on many outdated educational practices and has highlighted inequities. Among the observations are questions about how academic assessments and accountability systems support educators and policymakers in their quest to make data-driven decisions when it comes to instruction, resource distribution, continuous school improvement, and better student outcomes.

“This is a moment unlike ever before where we can choose to adapt for the short-term or commit to innovate our assessment and accountability systems to ensure that comparable, statewide disaggregated data is actionable and helps close longstanding opportunity gaps,” said ERN Vice President for K-12 Policy Charles Barone in a statement. “The policy options presented here contain areas of both consensus and difference and reflect diverse perspectives across the education field that can serve as a guide for federal and state policymakers as they make decisions about how to best serve all students – especially those historically underserved.”

The report is organized around four main challenges and recommendations pertaining to assessments and accountability. The first challenge focuses on spring 2021, and the next three challenges look beyond 2021:

1. Challenge: States and districts are struggling to understand how students, educators, and schools are doing and how they can most equitably apply interventions and distribute resources.

Recommendation: Provide federal and state support to states and districts for identifying gaps in learning outcomes and growth, implementing appropriate evidence-based interventions, and targeting resources to students who have been the most deeply impacted by the pandemic—including students of color, students from low-income backgrounds, English learners, and students with disabilities—in an equitable manner that reflects local context and need.

2. Challenge: How can we re-envision accountability systems so that the data they provide are more actionable for a variety of stakeholder groups in providing high-quality and effective learning opportunities and resources? How can we make sure they offer responsive support to educators and families, and drive the improvement of student outcomes?

Recommendation: Reframe approaches to accountability, including the role of assessments in accountability systems, to better recognize growth and the narrowing of gaps in opportunity and outcomes over time.

3. Challenge: ESSA places a great deal of the onus for change at the level of individual schools when it may be that systemic policies at the district and state levels—including determinations of allocations of funds, staff, and other resources—are most in need of change.

Recommendation: The United States Department of Education (USED), Congress, and education stakeholders should work together to reform accountability and improvement systems so that states and districts are held accountable, respectively, for appropriate actions that influence student success. A feedback loop between schools, districts, and states should be created so that goals and requirements are met, with the provision of sufficient, effectively targeted resources and the enactment of evidence-based policies and practices.

4. Challenge: Annual statewide summative assessments were established in part to serve as an indicator of whether students are receiving a high-quality education and to identify schools most in need of support. However, many states are struggling to close gaps, suggesting that for some states data from statewide assessments may not be as actionable as intended. Many assessments also lack cultural relevance.

Recommendation: Develop assessments that provide students with more equitable opportunities to show what they know and produce results that are more timely and actionable for policymakers, educators, families, and students.

Laura Ascione

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