Cardona Urges States to Develop Creative Exams: 4 Initiatives to Consider

When the leader of the federal agency that requires states to administer standardized tests acknowledges that those exams have not always been successful and invites states to create a more helpful system for students, families, and educators, state education leaders should take advantage of this opportunity before it disappears.

In a letter sent in November, Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona urged state education officials to reconsider their assessment programs and provided guidance on how to do so using the Innovative Assessment Demonstration Authority. This program, which is part of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act, allows approved states to pilot new assessment approaches and eventually implement them statewide.

Despite being available for nearly a decade, many state officials have disregarded this authority, considering it unimportant due to numerous requirements, limited time, and lack of additional funding for exploring new assessment methods. Only a few states have applied, and some of those were not selected, while others found the program too restrictive and dropped out.

However, Cardona‚Äôs letter demonstrates the federal government’s renewed commitment to supporting states in innovating assessments, either through the authority or other means. This is crucial for states to establish a single comprehensive system for measuring learning and reporting progress that is relevant and meaningful to federal policymakers, as well as educators, students, and families.

Two specific points caught our attention in the letter. In addition to clarifying some technical requirements, the letter encourages state officials to engage in planning discussions with the Department of Education before submitting a formal application. It also suggests exploring funding options through other federal programs.

Together with other recent actions, such as granting a waiver to Montana to pilot a program with smaller tests administered throughout the year rather than a single end-of-year assessment, the Department of Education is signaling its commitment to making assessment reform more feasible.

So how can state leaders take advantage of this moment? We propose the following four steps:

First, assess the opinions of affected communities.

State leaders should start by understanding how individuals involved in the education system view the benefits and drawbacks of current assessment and accountability methods. It is crucial to identify who supports change and who does not, and address concerns early in the process.

There are several methods to achieve this, such as conducting listening tours and town hall meetings. Alternatively, state officials can form design teams consisting of students, parents, community advocates, educators, and technical experts. Building partnerships with organizations that convene district leaders, school leaders, educators, and research institutions, as well as leaders from the governor’s office, legislature, and state Board of Education, can also help with assessment design and implementation.

Kentucky provides a successful example of this approach. After conducting a Commissioner’s Listening Tour, Kentucky collaborated with the Center for Innovation in Education to establish a comprehensive statewide coalition tasked with co-creating a new vision for education.

Engaging various stakeholders in the design of new assessment and accountability models helps generate public and political support for change. When people see their needs and concerns reflected in the new system, or at least feel heard and understand the reasons behind necessary compromises, they are more likely to support it.

Second, initiate a dialogue with the U.S. Department of Education.

Once state leaders have enlisted design collaborators, they should reach out to the Department of Education to start a conversation about their ideas. Subsequently, they should formally request to enter planning status. Cardona’s letter clarifies that states can do this even if their vision for innovative assessments and their formal application to the authority are still evolving. Planning status provides an opportunity for states to receive feedback on their initial assessment designs. Although not binding, it gives a sense of formality to the state’s intentions, which can help garner support and funding at home.

Third, leverage other federal programs for funding.

Cardona’s letter suggests that states do not have to fund assessment innovation entirely on their own. Instead, state leaders should consider utilizing other federal funding sources, particularly the Competitive Grants for State Assessments program. Kentucky is one state that is leveraging program funds received in 2022 to design a new model for school and district accountability based on the lessons learned from districts implementing competency-based assessments.

Other federal grant programs, such as school improvement funds in Title I, could also be valuable in supporting local engagement in assessment innovation. This money could be used for pre-planning and preparation to apply for the grant program.

Fourth, seek flexibility from the federal government.

While it is true that states can introduce new tests alongside federally mandated assessments without formal approval or simply proceed and seek forgiveness later, we believe there is now a more viable path to openly discuss innovation. This is how states can create a unified assessment system that provides valuable information for state-level oversight and enhances teaching and learning in the classroom.

State education leaders cannot afford to remain idle. They must heed the Department of Education’s signals and put them to the test. The department is indicating a willingness to try new approaches, as demonstrated by New Hampshire’s federal waiver for the Performance Assessment of Competency Education pilot in 2015. We believe the department is even more receptive today.

One thing is certain: state education leaders must take action. They need to hit the ground running, engage communities across the state, gather enthusiastic innovators, listen to diverse perspectives, and learn from one another. While opportunities can arise and fade as supporters come and go, a groundswell of local demand is hard to ignore. We have witnessed how strong and sustained leadership, supported by grassroots changemakers, can persuade federal authorities to embrace new ideas.

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