Nebraska Points the Way Forward

K-12 Testing

Nebraska is the only state that relies on local assessments to meet federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) accountability requirements. More important educationally, Nebraska's assessment system, constructed by local educators within state guidelines, increasingly supports student learning in ways that standardized tests cannot (see Examiner, Spring 2002).


In Reclaiming Assessment: A Better Alternative to the Accountability Agenda, Chris Gallagher explores the development and successes of the state's system.


The Statewide Teacher-led Assessment and Reporting System (STARS) program establishes requirements that local assessments must meet. They must be based on the state's academic content standards (or state-approved local standards), ensure consistent scoring, be unbiased and developmentally appropriate with mastery levels set appropriately, and students must have an opportunity to learn the content. In most districts, local educators have helped develop the assessments. Each local system is reviewed by independent experts. If it is not approved, it must be revised. After much resistance, the U.S. Department of Education has approved this approach as acceptable under NCLB (see Examiner, October 2006).


As Gallagher shows, development of Nebraska's system has been uneven, complex and at times difficult, but it has provided enormous benefits for educators and students. Nebraska may be a unique state where 400 teachers can assemble to talk knowledgeably, proudly, even happily, about assessment at an annual conference.


Initially, many schools relied on teacher-made, mostly multiple-choice tests. These tests 'covered' the standards, they were better aligned to the specific curriculum, and they were as reliable as corporate multiple-choice tests. But they revealed far less of what students knew and were able to do than did samples of actual classroom work. Over time, teachers have been incorporating these richer sources of evidence of student learning into the local assessments.


Teachers' ability to improve the system and their own practice has depended greatly on access to expanded professional development, while their work on the assessments has itself been a valuable form of professional learning. The focus on local assessments has also fostered collegiality in schools. Gallagher describes a school in which the teachers referred to their few colleagues who did not want to participate in the voluntary collaborative work as "teachers in private practice." But since the book was written, according to the school's principal, all the teachers have decided to participate.


Involving teachers in the assessment process has also fostered increased use of "formative assessments" to provide feedback to students. Formative assessment has been shown to be highly beneficial, with even stronger results for lower-achieving students (see Black and Wiliam review in Examiner, Winter 1999).


Teacher engagement, says Gallagher, should replace the sterile concept of accountability rooted in tests and punishments that pervades NCLB and most state tests. By teacher engagement, Gallagher means the teacher-led process of school improvement taking hold in Nebraska. It is through engagement that teachers learn how to do their jobs better, assess more accurately and deeply, and gather and organize the evidence of learning that can demonstrate to parents, communities and policy-makers what students have achieved.


Nebraska's progress is a testimonial to the educators in the schools, but also to the state's leadership. Commissioner Doug Christensen insists that in Nebraska, "We do school reform with teachers, not to teachers." Gallagher, who headed up the initial independent review of the STARS program, demonstrates the truth of that claim and the positive consequences it has for schools. Christensen has been supported by the state's assessment director, Pat Roschewski, who has written about STARS for Phi Delta Kappan (as has Gallagher himself).


In his jacket blurb to Reclaiming Assessment, FairTest's Monty Neill described the book as "The most engaging, exciting and useful book on assessment I have read in a long time. Chris Gallagher draws on the rich experiences of Nebraska educators to show why and how that state's teachers are leading a profoundly important assessment revolution." Or as Deborah Meier says in her preface, "[W]e can all learn a lot from [Nebraska's] efforts, its steady and modest and honest exploration of how best to hold ourselves accountable for our ideas and our practices."


There are few books anyone interested in assessment reform should read. This is one of them.


- Published by Heinemann;


- Nebraska's STARS website which contains details on the program is at For Kappan articles, go to, click on publication archives, then search by author for Gallagher and for Roschewski; you can see abstracts and purchase articles.