Innovative Assessments Earn First Class Seat in Senate’s K-12 Education Bill

Topics: Education Policy

After years of debate and countless failed attempts to reauthorize the nation’s federal K-12 law, Congress finally appears ready to give the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) its best shot. Skeptics quieted as ESEA legislation passed the House Wednesday and took center stage on the Senate floor for an amendment process that will carry into next week. Hopes are higher than ever that a conference committee will finally have the opportunity to negotiate a compromise to replace the nearly decade overdue law.

While most of the debate in the Senate will center on a handful of highly controversial issues, others have earned a first class seat to conference thanks to broad support from committee leadership. Among the favorites is a new innovative assessment pilot that would give states the opportunity to design new, competency-based assessment systems in place of the current federally-required assessments. This pilot would enable states to build better, flexible assessments that enable educators and students to improve teaching and learning in real-time and to demonstrate mastery of knowledge and skills when students are ready.

KnowledgeWorks and its partners, iNACOL, the Council of Chief State School Officers, and America Forward, worked closely with committee staff as well as Senators Angus King (I-ME), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Susan Collins (R-ME), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), and Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) to strengthen the proposal in preparation for the Senate floor. Our primary goal was to design a workable program that would enable states to produce the next generation of high quality assessments.

We are grateful to our Senate champions and committee staff for their leadership in making a number of critical improvements to the proposal in the new substitute bill currently under consideration on the Senate floor.

Highlights of these changes include:


Instead of the initial three-year demonstration period with the possibility of a two-year extension, the substitute would allow states to propose their own timeline for implementation as long as the timeline does not exceed five years. States would still remain eligible for an additional two-year extension as long as they continue to meet their application requirements and can demonstrate that they will be able to scale statewide by the end of the additional two-year window. This improvement would provide states with a more workable timeline to scale the assessment system statewide.

State Participation

The substitute would permit up to seven states, or a consortia of states (not to exceed four in partnership), to participate in the program in the first three years of the demonstration authority. This cap was increased from a cap of five states in the committee-approved proposal. The substitute also replaces a required evaluation of the assessment system’s impact on teaching and learning indicators at year three with a non-binding progress report meant to provide transparency around a broad range of indicators. The Secretary would use this information to improve technical assistance for participating states, but the information would not impact whether additional states could participate in the demonstration authority beyond the initial three-year cap.

Demographic Similarity

The substitute amendment would ensure that states are thoughtful in their application about how to scale to a demographically similar group of districts by the end of the demonstration period and to report progress annually toward this goal. This approach would replace the original requirement that states demonstrate at the outset that participating school districts are demographically similar (“as a group”) to the state as a whole. While well intentioned, the original approach would have restricted states from launching the pilot in their most innovative districts and leveraging the success to build capacity in districts that require additional support.

Peer Review

The substitute would require the Secretary to either approve or deny a state’s application within 90 days of submission and give states the opportunity to revise and resubmit their application within 60 days after an initial decision has been made. The amendment would also ensure that the peer review panel consists of individuals with experience implementing innovative assessment systems.


Rather than require an evaluation of participating states at year three, the substitute would evaluate a participating state’s assessment system at the end of the demonstration authority to determine if the state is ready to transition to the innovative assessment indefinitely. The substitute clarifies that the baseline year for comparison is the first year of the demonstration authority to ensure comparisons are accurate and fair.

Comparable vs. Equivalent

The original proposal permitted the Secretary to withdraw demonstration authority from a state if the state was not able to demonstrate that the innovative assessment system was “equivalent” to the federally-required statewide summative assessments in “content coverage, difficulty, and quality.” The substitute would change the standard to “comparable” to clarify that states are not expected to develop assessments that are nearly identical to their previous systems.

These improvements represent a significant step in the design of a program that has the potential to redefine the way our country thinks about and implements assessments of student learning. While there is still more work to do before the language is perfect and ready for the President’s signature, we should all rest comfortably knowing that really thoughtful bi-partisan conversations unfolded in Washington, D.C., to craft a high quality proposal that responds to the growing national demand for better assessments that empower continuous improvement of student learning.