K-12 assessments play a key role in measuring student learning and providing a road map for future instruction, as well as holding schools accountable for student performance. Yet the need for systemic transformation is clear: Students’ math and reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress have been declining since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and more than half of surveyed educators report that state-mandated standardized tests are not useful tools in their classroom.
Two years ago, the Center for American Progress released its “Future of Testing in Education” series, presenting a new theory of action for the role of testing in schools and identifying strategies to structure K-12 assessment systems more equitably and effectively. This fact sheet provides an update on state testing systems across the country, highlighting three emerging trends.
1. States are transitioning to through-year assessments
Through-year assessment models administer multiple tests during the school year and aggregate the results into a single summative score. Schools may use this score to meet state and federal accountability requirements, reducing their reliance on standardized tests that measure progress only at the beginning or end of the academic year. Additionally, administering assessments throughout the year provides schools the opportunity to connect assessment content directly with curricula, equipping teachers with the information they need to personalize instruction and close student achievement gaps. While through-year assessments are not a new idea, tying state assessments directly to curricula and classroom instruction presents a valuable opportunity for states to reduce the burden of testing and create more holistic measures of student learning and understanding. At least 13 states are currently exploring through-year assessment models, including:
- Louisiana, which is using the U.S. Department of Education’s Innovative Assessment Demonstration Authority (IADA) to create the 2025 through-year Louisiana Educational Assessment Program (LEAP) in English language arts (ELA) and social studies. The program creates a system of unit-based tests, complete with an end-of-year writing task in order to fully align state standards with curricula and assessment in the classroom. The new system will incorporate content from the ELA Guidebooks 2.0, a set of open-source curricula developed by Louisiana educators, and districts will be able to choose the test format that most closely matches their educational program. The state asserts that this system “will make assessments more relevant and connected to the classroom for Louisiana teachers and students, while still providing valid, reliable, and transparent data on student achievement and growth.”
- Florida and Texas, which both launched through-year assessment pilot programs in the 2022-23 school year that explore replacing the current summative assessment systems with a “progress monitoring” model that provides three testing opportunities throughout the year. Score reports are typically made available for educators within a week to provide near-immediate information on student mastery of curriculum standards and offer opportunities to tailor curricula to student needs.
- Montana, which received a one-year Field Testing Flexibility waiver from the U.S. Department of Education to administer a through-year assessment model for grades 3 through 8 during the 2023-24 school year. The state’s Alternative Student Testing Pilot, developed by teachers, will provide “a meaningful model of student growth” over the school year that is flexible enough to align test content with local curricula. Montana plans for this new assessment model to fully replace the current model of state and federal accountability systems in July 2024.
2. States are implementing locally designed and performance-based assessment models
Performance-based assessments measure student learning through authentic, complex tasks or activities in which students are able to utilize a range of skills to demonstrate their knowledge of learning content. Unlike multiple-choice tests, performance assessments are typically open-ended and are often graded using rubrics to measure student understanding and competency. These task-based assessments “allow for more holistic review of student work” and can be especially authentic measures of student learning when developed by local educators, who have deep knowledge of and lived experience within the communities they serve. Several states have begun systematically implementing locally designed and/or performance-based assessment models:
- Colorado’s state department of education is pioneering a new “Collaboratively-developed, Standards-based Performance Assessment process” for students to demonstrate readiness for high school graduation through personalized projects. State educators define these assessments as “an authentic demonstration of student knowledge and skills through the creation of a complex product or presentation.” The state is addressing some of the major concerns traditionally associated with scaling performance-based assessment models by offering centralized supports to districts, including planning templates, validation protocols, and statewide scoring criteria that ensure assessments are equitable and comparable.
- Kentucky is spearheading a community-based partnerships initiative designed to involve districts in co-designing and piloting new models for assessments and accountability systems. The state is establishing three cohorts of “Local Laboratories of Learning” in order to “create a more equitable future for education in Kentucky through an inclusive co-design process.” The initiative represents a significant step toward fostering and scaling locally designed assessment models, including performance-based assessments, with statewide support.
- Massachusetts and Nebraska are both using grants from the U.S. Department of Education to create new systems of science assessments based on technology-enhanced performance tasks, starting with grades 5 and 8. Nebraska is leading a cohort of states focused on developing and implementing “Stackable, Instructionally-embedded, Portable Science (SIPS) Assessments project[s],” while Massachusetts plans for students to “dive deep into performance tasks focused on real-life scenarios.” These pilot programs, though limited in their initial scope, will create a strong precedent in state-level support for authentic assessment tasks and a new benchmark for 21st century science instruction.
3. States are reframing the role of standardized testing in high school graduation requirements
Although assessments are a critical tool for measuring students’ understanding and providing them with necessary supports, standardized tests have a long, problematic history rooted in eugenics and racial bias, the effects of which can still be seen today. Difficult high school exit exams, or tests that students must pass in order to graduate, have been shown to “reduce graduation and increase incarceration rates,” exacerbating the school-to-prison pipeline. In light of the growing evidence of these discriminatory effects, several states have begun to reconstruct the role of high-stakes standardized testing in their high school graduation requirements. Fifteen states have eliminated exit examinations over the past several years, and at least three more are considering legislation to do the same. Several states are pursuing more holistic measures of academic competency and college and career readiness:
- New Mexico recently introduced the Graduation Equity Initiative to replace standardized-test-based high school graduation requirements with alternative pathways such as portfolios or community-based “capstone” projects. These pathways will be shaped by locally developed “graduate profiles” that reflect the skills and competencies that communities want their students to develop. Community feedback on this initiative has informed state legislators as they continue to work on altering graduation requirements to include multiple pathways for students to demonstrate college and career readiness.
- Just prior to the pandemic, Washington passed a bill that established eight graduation pathway options for students to choose from in order to demonstrate college and career readiness. Some pathways rely on assessment scores on statewide tests, Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate exams, and the SAT or ACT, while other pathways account for the completion of dual-credit coursework or specified career technical education classes. The Washington State Board of Education has collected and reported data from students, educators, and families on how these pathways can continue to be improved to better reflect students’ readiness for life after high school. Additionally, the state legislature is currently considering a bill to create a ninth pathway centered on the completion of “a performance-based learning experience,” which could include “a project, practicum, work-related experience, community service, or cultural activity.”
Ongoing reform initiatives in state assessment systems have the potential to measure student learning more accurately and effectively, providing information that educators need to close achievement gaps. States are increasingly exploring through-year and performance-based assessment models as schools look to decentralize high-stakes standardized testing and refocus on high-quality instructional time. These strategies will produce holistic measures of student knowledge and understanding, ultimately providing a critical road map for academic support and success in the years to come.