New ESSA testing proposals prompt praise, caution

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The U.S. Department of Education on July 6 proposed rules surrounding student testing under the Every Student Succeeds Act, including plans for a new pilot program that states will likely be able to apply for in 2016-17. The announcements drew both caution and praise from the AFT, along with a renewed call by union President Randi Weingarten to ensure that the Education Department's efforts in this area remain true to ESSA as a "reset" of education policy and work that guarantees "students are getting an opportunity to learn, and not reverting to the test-and-sanction policies of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top."

ESSA continues the requirement for states to administer tests in English language arts and math to all students in grades 3-8 and once in high school. The law also preserves the mandate that students be tested once in science in each of these grade spans: 3-5, 6-9 and 10-12. Constructive implementation of these requirements was addressed earlier this year when an array of stakeholders from several organizations, including the AFT, met in Washington, D.C., to examine concerns surrounding testing and to help flesh out possible new approaches under ESSA. This process is called negotiated rulemaking, and much of the organizations' work carries into the department's new proposed rules, particularly in such areas as the inclusion of English learners in assessments and opportunities for use of locally selected, nationally recognized assessments in high school.

"While the proposed regulations give states and school districts needed flexibility to develop assessment systems—which the AFT pressed for—we remain concerned that the drive for data eclipses student needs," Weingarten said, pointing to the department's proposal to "tie waivers for exceeding the cap on testing students with significant cognitive disabilities to requirements to test 95 percent of students, as we raised during negotiated rulemaking. We're worried that parents who want to opt their kids out of testing will be thwarted by rules punishing their schools if they choose to exercise their rights."

ESSA also establishes a pilot program for seven states to use performance assessments in all or a subset of their schools in lieu of traditional state standardized tests for federal accountability purposes. It's a proposal the AFT strongly supports, and the department's July 6 announcement of rules tied to the pilot was the "best news of the day" said Weingarten, who urged regulators to make the pilot as expansive as possible in order to tap into powerful, promising work in the field. "There are so many great examples of models that use a comprehensive, multiple-measure approach, such as using project-based learning and student portfolios to determine a more well-rounded and holistic view of student learning, rather than just rote memorization."

[Mike Rose, AFT news release]