By design, the Common Core standards and other college- and career-ready expectations states have established recently were designed to have a ripple effect throughout the education system. A clearer focus on the writing, problem solving and critical thinking that are essential skills for student success after high school has repercussions for curriculum and instructional tools, how educators are teaching, and what tests measure. For those of us advocating for more successful and more equitable schools, all these changes have been time-consuming and challenging to help put in place—but none has been as thorny or politically contentious as increasing the quality of state tests.
Tests aren’t a substitute for excellent teaching, but tests are one important tool for teachers—and policymakers, education leaders and parents—to help ensure students are on track for learning what they need for success. Tests signal the knowledge and skills that are most important, show how schools and students are progressing and help identify where to direct resources so all students get the support they need. Indeed, one enduring lesson from the No Child Left Behind era is the out-sized and negative influence low-quality, multiple-choice, “content-lite” state tests have on the sorts of teaching and learning we all want to see in classrooms.
To help states with this transition to different tests over the past four years, the High-Quality Assessment Project (HQAP) supported state education and business groups, national networks of teachers and parents, opinion research, and civil rights and equity advocacy organizations with grants and assistance to make the case for better state assessments. The Bill & Melinda Gates, Hewlett, Lumina and Schusterman foundations and the Helmsley Charitable Trust created HQAP; with Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, Education First was pleased to help lead this pooled grantmaking fund.
Many HQAP grantees targeted their efforts specifically at helping policymakers, educators and parents understand the new tests created by the state consortia PARCC and Smarter Balanced. While both consortia have lost members, they are still in business six years later and, this past school year, over half of students in grade 3-8 or high school across the country still took one of these tests. Just as important, regardless of whether states are members or not, both consortia have succeeded as market disruptors, pushing the field to use more performance items, better quality items with deeper content, innovative accommodations and more technology.
After four years and many local and state projects to support the implementation of better tests, the project sunsets this month and we have created a new website to make sure the field has continued access to the best information and best advocacy resources on this issue. We intend for this site to be a one-stop compilation of independent state test quality reviews and rubrics, communications tools and infographics, and model materials for engaging both parents and policymakers. HQAP grantees and partners created most of these resources, and it’s impressive to see all they accomplished—and how relevant these materials continue to be today.
Also, a brand new resource on this site collects the most convincing arguments and evidence HQAP grantees used about the importance of high-quality tests—and how to know if your own state has one. We continue to hear that many state leaders still struggle to understand the importance of better tests over cheaper, multiple-choice tests, especially in states that decided to “go it alone” on testing decisions. To help advocates better make this case to policymakers, we wrote this short briefing paper (plus created customized copies for each state) about the variability in quality of states’ tests—and the importance of engaging teachers, higher education leaders and researchers to review them. The briefs include data for every state from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce about how jobs—and the skills and knowledge students need to be learning (and tests should be measuring)—are evolving.
As states continue to work to find the right balance between tests that truly measure college-and career-ready expectations and tests that take the least amount of time, we hope these resources from HQAP’s grantees and Education First can continue to be a source of knowledge and support. If you think others in your networks could benefit from these resources, feel free to share this page widely. And note we’ll also be adding a few final resources—case studies that reflect on lessons learned—over the coming weeks.