Considering Interim Assessments and Summative Information

Mar 07, 2019

Providing Flexibility to Schools and Districts while meeting ESSA Assessment Requirements

Getting the most out of any investment is common sense, and a sensical goal. In terms of school districts and states, these entities often make substantial investments into interim assessments with the aim of supporting classroom instruction and district decision making. It is natural, therefore, for district leaders to ask, “What else can this information be used for?” This question may be one of the reasons behind the Every Student Succeeds Act provision, which allows states to use interim assessments for the purposes of federal accountability. 

This post picks up where I left off in a previous post that explored one flexible interim design–a “mini-assessment”–as a way of meeting this interim provision. That prior post outlined the basics of the mini-assessment design, in which a set of short assessments, each of which is aligned to a single standard, can be combined into longer assessments based on user needs and preferences. The purpose of this post is to consider how the mini-assessment design might support the production of a single summative score to support accountability determinations. 

ESSA Requirements and Guide Rails

The ESSA interim assessment provision requires that states produce a “single summative score” for each student. With a completely flexible mini-assessment design, classrooms, schools and districts would likely administer many different combinations of mini-assessments at differing times across the school year–meaning both content coverage and administration timing would vary substantially across students within a state. Defending a single summative score produced based on this type of data would be difficult, to say the least!

For the mini-assessment design to meet the ESSA requirements for a “single summative score”, it is necessary to carefully balance the state’s needs for standardization with a district’s need for flexibility. One way to accomplish this balance is to create guide rails defining the boundaries of acceptable practice. Two key issues where guide rails are likely to be most helpful are content coverage and administration timing. 

Using Current Practices as Guide Rails for Content Coverage of Mini-Assessments

Ensuring that the depth and breadth of the content standards are adequately assessed is important for any assessment used to meet the requirements of ESSA. With a single grade-level assessment, ensuring content coverage means ensuring that the standards, the assessment blueprint, and assessment items are all in alignment. For a set of mini-assessments, content coverage is much the same; but with each mini-assessment covering a portion of the “overall” blueprint. That is, since each mini-assessment is designed to measure a single standard, then the goal of content coverage is to ensure that all mini-assessments are administered from a pre-specified pool, a pool that covers the standards in much the same way as a single end of year assessment.

Some flexibility could be built into content coverage requirements by, say, implementing rules that each student take at least one assessment per standard (breadth) but allowing schools or districts to decide where multiple forms of a mini-assessment may be needed (depth). The year-to-year variation in blueprint design for a state’s end-of-year assessment could be used as a guide rail to determine any potential flexibility in content coverage.

Administration Timing of Mini Assessments

Whereas ESSA’s requirements on depth and breadth are fairly strict, there are no such requirements around the timing of the mini-assessment administrations. Thus, a state may offer schools or districts a great deal of flexibility in terms of the timing of administration. In fact, even with a single state assessment, many states already offer districts substantial autonomy over the scheduling of state assessments.

At one extreme, schools or districts (or even teachers) could be allowed to administer the mini-assessments at any point during the year, so long as by the end of the year all of the required mini-assessments are given. At another extreme, schools or districts could be required to administer the set of mini-assessments within fixed windows during the year. Multiple variations in-between these two extremes exist. For example, students could be required to take sets of mini-assessments during a fixed window at the end of each academic quarter, trimester or semester. Or, students could be required to complete specific sets of mini-assessments by the end of each academic quarter, trimester or semester. 

While the variations in administration are numerous, the factors deciding what administration design a state ultimately uses are not. Factors related to logistics can be decisive. Can a state support a design in which schools or districts could be testing at any point during the year? Could adequate technical support and security measures be enacted for such a model of continuous testing? 

Addressing these types of questions and developing guide rails that support schools and districts are key for state implementation of the mini-assessment design. 

States Partnering with Districts for Better Educational Policy and Practice

Districts are often well positioned to influence teaching and learning in a systematic way (Shepard, Penuel & Pellegrino, 2018Marion, 2018), as they are close enough to the classroom to influence teaching, but still far enough away to leverage economies of scale. States are well positioned to provide access to, and support the use of resources intended to ensure that all students have access to educational opportunities rooted in common content and performance standards. Given this capability, a state’s role may be best thought of as supporting districts in developing good policies and practice. 

In terms of the “mini-assessment” system of interim assessments I’ve outlined above, the state could support districts by developing the system and its requirements with input from districts, then allow districts the freedom to operate within the guide rails of that system as they see fit. Moreover, a district would be likely to use such a system for more than state accountability. This approach would indeed be killing two birds with one stone, ideally reducing the number of assessments students take by allowing multiple decisions to be made based on data collected from the set of mini-assessments taken throughout the year.