The Every Student Succeeds Act: Balancing assessment’s burdens and benefits

High schools students and a teacher working at a table using computers and tablets

The nation is unhappy with educational assessment, at least in its current form. Students across the nation are “opting out” of standardized assessments. At least a half million students chose not to take state standardized assessments across seven states this past spring (2015).

Test critics claim that the burdens of testing are great and include instructional time loss, anxiety for students, and resources spent on the process. They do not see those burdens offset by the benefits, such as information about student progress, a check on school and state performance, and information to equip teachers to make instructional decisions. Test advocates claim that we need feedback on student progress, feedback that is fair across schools. They argue that a systematic evaluation of student learning against education goals is important for monitoring and improving education in the US.

Frankly, both sides have legitimate arguments and as is often the case, the truth is somewhere in the middle. But, the issue we need to address should not be to test or not to test, it should be about how to maximize benefits of testing while minimizing burdens. In a digital-first world, this is possible.

On December 10, 2015, President Obama signed in a new education law–the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). In it, the federal government offers states many options to improve assessments. Funding from the government as part of ESSA offers states the opportunity to make small changes to assessments, such as “Refining State assessments to ensure their continued alignment with the challenging State academic standards and to improve the alignment of curricula and instructional materials (Title I, Part B, Section 1201(E)”, to make moderate changes, such as using multiple measures of student achievement, or to evolve assessments in a substantial way, such as creating an innovative assessment system that is competency-based or instructionally-embedded. The changes offered by ESSA are exciting and should bring test critics and advocates together to keep and improve on what is good about assessment while minimizing the pain points.

The new ESSA law explicitly offers states the flexibility and funding to innovate in the area of assessments in three sections of the law.

  1. Funding New, Innovative Assessments. Title I, Part B (State Assessment Grants), Section 1201 (Grants for State assessments and related activities)—states may use assessment funds to offer appropriate accommodations, develop challenging academic standards and aligned assessments, create balanced assessment systems, improve assessments for English learners and students with disabilities, measure academic achievement by combining multiple measures from multiple sources, etc. Some of the more innovative options include the balanced assessment systems, using multiple measures of student achievement, and designing more useful reporting tools.
  2. State Choice in Assessment Systems. Title I, Part B, Section 1204 (Innovative assessment and accountability demonstration authority)—a state education agency or consortium of agencies may establish an innovative assessment system under this part of the legislation. States/consortia are given quite a bit of flexibility to create their innovative assessment systems. For example, they might use competency-based assessments, where the focus is not an overall score of proficiency, but scores specific to defined learning steps. States may choose to focus on instructionally embedded assessments, or those that are part of the learning process and are not stand-alone. Other options include combining interim, end-of-year, and performance assessments or using computer-adapted assessments (which was not permitted under No Child Left Behind).
  3. Funding for Research on New Ideas. Title IV (21st Century Schools), Part F (National Activities), Section 4611 (Grants for Education Innovation and Research)—an eligible entity can “create, develop, implement, replicate, or take to scale entrepreneurial, evidence-based, field-initiated innovations to improve student achievement and attainment for high-need students.” These grants are not specifically assessment-based, as they are focused more generally on educational programs and innovations.


For the past four years, Pearson’s Research & Innovation Network has been developing, implementing, and testing assessment innovations. These innovations directly address the assessment innovation called for in ESSA.

For example, in leveraging new types of technology to incorporate performance assessment, such as simulations and games, we have been developing our Insight Learning System, which includes math and science simulations intended to provide feedback for both practices and content knowledge. Unlike traditional measures that use more items to provide this type of feedback in often contrived situations, these simulations allow students to engage in the content, learning while being assessed, simultaneously collecting performance data. The interactive simulations developed by Drs. Kristen DiCerbo and Emily Lai, which could potentially be delivered as part of an interim, multi-measure program, are ready to be tried out with students and include the use of click-stream data from which we pull out evidence of student mastery.

As another example, Pearson’s college readiness research offers a diagnostic tool to help states measure student achievement by combining multiple measures from multiple sources. Achievement is measured by combining grades and test scores across different content areas such as math, reading and science. The research goes on to expand the application of multiple measures. For example, Pearson researcher, Dr. Katie McClarty, evaluates eighth graders’ college readiness using a variety of measures from multiple sources, such as student information that is combined with teacher and parent information. Furthermore, achievement data are combined with other data sources that research shows are indicative of college readiness, such as motivation, behavior, family engagement and social engagement). By connecting eighth grade information to a clear outcome–college readiness at the end of high school—this tool offers states a way to incorporate data from existing summative and benchmark assessments to measure student progress to college readiness and expanded accountability goals.

In the past, test critics and advocates argued the pros and cons of formative, benchmark, interim, and summative testing. Now, it is time for both sides (and all those in the middle) to put differences aside and work together to turn dissatisfaction with educational assessments of the past into better and more useful assessments in the future. The government, through ESSA, provides us this opportunity. We just need to take them up on it.


Explore what we think the Future of Assessment could look like. 


New assessment innovations serve students better

About the Author
Kimberly O'Malley, Ph.D.

Kimberly O’Malley, Ph.D.

Dr. Kimberly O’Malley brings over 10 years of assessment experience to her current role as Pearson’s Senior Vice President for Research and Development. Prior to joining Pearson in 2003 as a psychometrician, she was director of the Measurement Excellence Initiative, which provided psychometric analysis and consultation services for various constituents of the United States Department of Veterans Affairs Department of Medicine. She served as assistant professor of Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, and taught for eight years in elementary and middle school grades with experience in general and special education settings. Dr. O’Malley’s research expertise is in topics such as student growth models, which measure focus on the performance of individual students; new applications of standard-setting methods; measurement for English Learners; and transitioning assessment systems. Follow@KimberlyOMalle1