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Developing Assessment Systems That Support Teaching and Learning: Recommendations for Federal Support

Teacher checking the microscope of a student in a science lab.

There is a growing call to reconsider approaches to national and state assessment systems, policies, and practices. State and local education agency leaders, educators, community leaders, and advocates have voiced concerns that current state assessment systems—defined primarily by end-of-year multiple-choice tests—are unable to meet contemporary needs for information that supports teaching and learning.

More than 20 states are involved in efforts to transform one or more aspects of their assessment systems; however, the process of securing federal assistance and approval to make transitions poses numerous challenges. Among them are the costs and time required to change systems, the management of trend disruptions when new assessments are introduced, and interpretations of how to meet federal approval criteria under business rules that often keep new tests looking very much like old ones.

The Every Student Succeeds Act: Opportunities and Barriers for Meaningful Assessment Systems

In 2015, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) opened new possibilities, relative to the prior decade under No Child Left Behind, for how student and school success are defined and supported in U.S. public education. The law deepened the concept of student learning to be more consistent with what students need to be successful in 21st-century society and careers, calling for measurement of “higher-order thinking skills and understanding” as part of “high-quality student academic assessments in mathematics, reading or language arts, and science.” ESSA intentionally created opportunities for assessment innovation by explicitly allowing the use of multiple types of assessments, including “portfolios, projects, or extended-performance tasks,” as part of state systems.

In addition to its statewide assessment provisions, which encourage all states to advance more innovative assessments that better support teaching and learning, ESSA also explicitly allows a subset of states to pursue innovation through the Innovative Assessment Demonstration Authority (IADA). This provision invited up to seven states to apply for an innovative assessment pilot to implement new approaches to assessment and gradually scale them statewide. IADA defines innovation flexibly, allowing for state systems that may include competency-based assessments, curriculum-embedded performance assessments, and through-year assessment approaches.

While many states were initially pleased to have the opportunity to explore the flexibilities in the law through IADA, applying for and complying with the terms of the waiver have proved to be so onerous and constraining that few states have yet been able to use IADA to explore or implement innovative assessment designs. Fewer still have been able to develop systems that provide insights into student learning in ways that are particularly meaningful to teaching, as originally envisioned by ESSA.

Calls for Assessment Systems That Better Support Teaching and Learning

Many state leaders see the opportunities ESSA creates and want to transform their state assessment systems to take advantage of these affordances—with or without IADA. Through a series of conversations with state and local leaders as well as teachers and partners in the education space, a common set of goals for assessments that can inform and improve teaching and learning in schools is emerging:

  • Assessment tasks should encourage applied learning and higher-order skills.
  • Assessments should be integrated into a system of curriculum, instruction, and professional learning for teachers that supports high-quality teaching and learning.
  • Assessments should be part of accountability systems that support equitable access to learning opportunities.

Possibilities for Federal Executive Action

Many of the challenges that state and local leaders identify have to do with enabling conditions. States and districts have compelling ideas about what would position assessments to better support teaching and learning, but they need time, support, and permission to innovate in those ways. Several possible federal executive actions could encourage innovative assessment systems that better support teaching and learning. Some actions can strengthen statewide assessment systems as well as the innovative systems developed under IADA, while other recommendations focus solely on strengthening IADA implementation.

States and districts have compelling ideas about what would position assessments to better support teaching and learning, but they need time, support, and permission to innovate in those ways.

Align technical expectations with ESSA’s assessment allowances and requirements

The U.S. Department of Education’s approval process for all state assessment systems is guided by an internally developed and moderated peer review process used to render judgments about state systems. While ESSA explicitly encourages more instructionally relevant assessment approaches, the peer review process is often unnecessarily constraining and disincentivizes the very kinds of assessments that ESSA encourages. The Department of Education’s interpretation of ESSA’s assessment provisions in the peer review guidance reifies traditional standardized measures, privileging assessments that are administered once to all students, have a large number of relatively superficial items measuring many standards, are easily quantifiable, and can be rapidly machine scored without needing expertise to evaluate.

If the federal peer review process were updated to truly focus on high-quality assessments and data without privileging any one particular approach, state assessment programs could then be designed in ways that are technically strong (potentially stronger than existing assessments) and still support a range of (allowable) instructionally useful innovations that states are considering.

Enable IADA to better support innovation in assessment

While the inclusion of IADA within ESSA was first met with excitement by states, this optimism has waned. IADA does not typically offer states enough opportunity and flexibility to offset the tremendous effort of creating new assessment systems. In fact, many of IADA’s requirements are viewed as onerous and may actually limit efforts to develop innovative systems. Executive action could shift the cost–benefit trade-offs, open opportunities for innovation, and remove barriers to state participation.

Create additional pathways to innovation

While IADA represents one major effort to create opportunities for assessment innovation, there are other ways the Department of Education can signal, incentivize, and support change. For example, the Competitive Grants for State Assessment (CGSA) program has been used to support states and multistate collaboratives in improving their state assessment systems. This grant program provides funding and has fewer constraints than IADA, and it may be an effective avenue to support innovative state assessment efforts.


A variety of federal executive action strategies could be implemented in the short term to encourage more innovative state assessment systems that better support teaching and learning. Some strategies can help to strengthen state assessment systems in all 50 states. Other strategies can help to foster innovative assessments in the subset of states participating in the Innovative Assessment Demonstration Authority. As the field focuses on dramatic improvements to support learning recovery, a strategic approach could enable significant advances in assessments more tightly tied to curriculum and instruction.

Developing Assessment Systems That Support Teaching and Learning: Recommendations for Federal Support by Aneesha Badrinarayan and Linda Darling-Hammond In collaboration with Michael DiNapoli, Tara Kini, Tiffany Miller, and Julie Woods is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

This research was supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and Walton Family Foundation. Core operating support for LPI is provided by the Heising-Simons Foundation, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Raikes Foundation, Sandler Foundation, and MacKenzie Scott. We are grateful to them for their generous support. The ideas voiced here are those of the authors and not those of our funders.