Changes to State Assessment Systems

K-12 Testing

FairTest Examiner, July 2008

Several states are moving to overhaul their assessment and accountability systems. Activity includes initial movement toward development of a new system in Ohio, a disappointing outcome on high-stakes testing in Massachusetts, a positive change in North Carolina and a negative one in Nebraska.

Ohio will use a $1.3 million in foundation grants to explore shifting from one-size-fits-all standardized testing to alternative assessments such as portfolios, senior projects, group collaborations and teacher observation. A group of educators from across the state will begin choosing and piloting alternative assessments in September and continue throughout the 2008 – 2009 school year. The effort is based on the premise that since students learn differently, they should be assessed in different ways.

In June, a statewide student group urged Ohio Governor Ted Strickland to consider alternatives to the five-part Ohio Graduation Test. "Schools once renowned for their unique learning programs are becoming nothing more than soulless factories that churn out those that can excel at standardized tests while discarding those who can't," wrote Shaw High School senior Jonathan Lykes and Federal Hocking High School senior Mason Pesek. A spokesman said Strickland would review the letter. “The governor is aware that concerns have been raised about the Ohio Graduation Test," said Keith Dailey. "He is open to exploring other types of assessments to address those concerns as part of the education reform process."

Many Massachusetts citizens concerned about high-stakes testing reacted with dismay to the final recommendations of Governor Patrick’s “Readiness Project,” which proposed an overhaul of preschool through college education. Six members of a subcommittee on assessment issued a statement expressing opposition to the final report’s call to keep the current high-stakes testing system in place while adding other forms of assessment. Lisa Guisbond, subcommittee member and policy analyst for FairTest said, “The MCAS subcommittee clearly and emphatically recommended that Massachusetts move on from the present MCAS system to a truly comprehensive assessment system using local assessments, including performances and portfolios. We said there is an urgent need to get beyond our overwhelming focus on preparing students for one-size-fits-all standardized tests.”

In its report, the assessment subcommittee voiced concerns about the state exit exam’s negative consequences and called for reforms. The subcommittee said the state's MCAS exam has narrowed curriculum, modified instructional approaches without consideration of what is developmentally appropriate, and resulted in significant decreases in student engagement. Its report noted that achievement gaps remain large and dropout rates are increasing, particularly among vulnerable populations.

The subcommittee recommended that the state move to a system balancing “state controlled on-demand exams and authentic locally delivered performance assessments designed to measure a common set of standards.” Time spent on state mandated standardized testing should be reduced in favor of a broad array of performance assessments. Further, “Graduation would not be denied based on the failure of the on-demand test component but would be depend on successful performance in a rigorous and varied comprehensive assessment system that is rooted in high expectations.”

--The final Readiness Project report and the MCAS and Assessment Subcommittee report are available here:

North Carolina has taken the positive step of eliminating state writing exams in 4th, 7th and 10th grades, part of a larger set of changes to state testing and accountability policies adopted by the state Board of Education. Instead of the tests, which were criticized for not accurately measuring writing ability, there will be a new system of writing assignments that will be developed and audited by the state but administered and scored by local districts.

Nebraska has moved to end its widely praised, unique system of local assessments and will impose a state testing system overseen by the governor and legislature (see Examiner, April 2002, April 2007). Educators who had supported Nebraska’s STARS system fear the new approach will narrow teaching and learning and bring the state in line with the educationally damaging practice of ranking schools and students by test scores alone.

The change was the result of a political move by legislators to take power away from local educators and enable more direct control over teaching through a set of state tests, as well as pressure from the U.S. Department of Education (see Examiner, August 2006).