State Assessment and High School

A Square Peg for a Round Hole

Photo courtesy of rosipaw

Charlie DePascale

We have reached a stalemate.

It has been nearly five years since ESSA and the assessment flexibility it offered to states, particularly at the high school level, became law.  Next week, we celebrate the tenth anniversary of the release and almost immediate and universal adoption of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) – reflecting the shift in the focus of education reform from the vague notion of state-defined proficiency to nationally agreed upon standards for college- and career-readiness.  As we sit here today, however, states are still struggling to gain approval from the United States Department of Education (USED) for the use of the ACT or SAT as their high school assessment.

The main sticking point appears to be the alignment of those college admissions tests to the breadth and depth of the states’ academic content standards.  USED is not incorrect in their interpretation of the law.  States are not incorrect in either their desire to use the college admissions tests as their state assessment or in their inference that the law encourages them to do so – regardless of whether one thinks that the use of the ACT and SAT as a state assessment is advisable.

Unfortunately, this stalemate was as unavoidable as it is unsolvable under the current rules of play. It is also only the latest example of the difficulty in trying to design high school state assessment programs that meet federal assessment requirements.  Like square pegs and round holes, state assessment and high school simply do not fit well together.

The American concept of the comprehensive high school has been structured around students pursuing a variety of pathways to diverse postsecondary destinations.  State assessment has been structured around the concept of all students traveling the same route at the same rate; arriving at a common destination at the same time.  It should not come as a surprise, therefore, that when the irresistible force of high school meets the immovable object that is USED the result is nothing more than raised temperatures and a lot of wasted energy.

In a new white paper, State Assessment and High School, we review conflicts between the traditional roles of high school and state assessment, examine the current context of state assessment within the federal requirements of ESSA, and share a vision for state assessment in high school that meets the spirit, if not the letter, of the law.  The conclusion is that it is simply time to acknowledge that high school is fundamentally different from elementary and middle school and the assessment requirements that make perfect sense and function well at grades 3 through 8 don’t work for high school.

Where do we go from here?

It would be easy to continue down the current path. I can attest that one can build a nice career helping states fit square pegs into round holes. If you are really good, you help states convince USED that the state’s round peg is actually the square peg that the federal government is looking for – or at least comparable to it.  And if I’m being totally honest, solving those types of problems for a state can be exhilarating.

But states have more important things to focus on than trying to shape high school assessment programs to meet ill-conceived applications of  federal assessment rules and large-scale measurement principles.  The assessment community, too, has much more important matters to attend to if we hope to support innovation and improved student learning.

  • Collecting information on student performance throughout the year.
  • Supporting the use of curriculum-embedded performance assessments.
  • Measuring higher-level thinking, 3-dimensional learning standards, and 21st Century skills.
  • Understanding and measuring the learning process as well as outcomes.
  • Providing timely and useful information to support instruction and learning.

I promise that solving those challenges will be much more fulfilling and exhilarating than fitting a square peg into a round hole.




Published by Charlie DePascale

Charlie DePascale is an educational consultant specializing in the area of large-scale educational assessment. When absolutely necessary, he is a psychometrician. The ideas expressed in these posts are his (at least at the time they were written), and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations with which he is affiliated personally or professionally..

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