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Helping HELP: Paul Leather’s Testimony on Assessments and Accountability

January 21, 2015 by
Paul Leather

Paul Leather

Earlier today, Paul Leather, Deputy Commissioner at NH’s Department of Education, testified at the Senate HELP Committee Full Committee Hearing on “Fixing No Child Left Behind: Testing and Accountability” about improving assessments and accountability systems. His testimony is provided below or you can watch here. Additional resources on ESEA include:

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Chairman Alexander, Senator Murray, and Members of the Committee, thank you for inviting me to testify about testing and accountability in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

I am Paul Leather, Deputy Commissioner of Education of the NH Department of Education.

In NH, we are working to explore what the next generation of assessments might look like, beyond an end-of-the-year test.

We have coordinated with the Council of Chief State School Officers on its Priorities for ESEA Reauthorization. These Priorities contain three important ingredients that are in line with the work we are doing:

  • First, it would continue to support annual assessments of student performance to ensure every parent receives the information they need on how their child is performing, at least once a year.
  • Second, it would allow states to base students’ annual determinations on a single standardized test, or the combined results from a coherent system of assessments.
  • Third, it gives states the space to continue to innovate on assessment and accountability systems, so important when the periods of authorization can last 10 years or longer.

We are working in collaboration with four NH school districts to pilot competency-based assessment systems, Sanborn Regional, Epping, Rochester, and Souhegan High School. We are intent on broadening expectations from the simple recitation of knowledge and facts, to also applying knowledge and skills in authentic settings, while fostering work study practices, such as persistence and creativity.  That is why we have emphasized Performance Assessments for Competency Education, or “PACE,” which is what we call our pilot project.

There are several key components in our Pilot:

  • The development of statewide model competencies that describe the knowledge and skills that all students are expected to master.
  • Use of a personalized, competency-based approach to instruction, learning, assessment, and awarding credit, and the
  • Use of common and local performance-based assessments of competencies throughout each school year, in tandem with grade span Smarter Balanced assessments of state standards in math and English Language Arts.

I am submitting for the record a detailed summary of all the steps we are taking to ensure comparability, reliability and validity of these assessments, as well as a brief description of the demographics of the participating districts.

Secondly, we support annual determinations based on a coherent system of state and local multiple assessments.  Rather than relying on just one state summative assessment to make this determination, we combine a series of assessment results throughout the year to make the annual determination.

Over the last year, there has been a crescendo of voices across the country raising the concern of over-testing.  We believe that the over-testing issue has arisen because there is a disconnect between local and state assessments. I have sat through many local school board meetings where the Superintendent explains to their Board the state test results, and then separately describes their local assessments, which they see as more directly tied to instructional improvement. These two sets of assessments and two accountability systems overlap and in some cases are redundant.  Our PACE Pilot braids these two systems together.  The result is less assessment overall with a more coherent system that still provides benchmark information the state and districts need without sacrificing much deeper, more actionable information at the classroom level.

Third, because of our work advancing a competency-based learning model, we understand the importance of creating freedom to innovate. We have been working on this system for 3 solid years, starting with intensive professional development to raise the assessment literacy of our teachers. We are not ready to take it statewide, but we hope to in the future. In NH, the “Live Free or Die” state, we believe that it is essential that local educational leaders help build the new system through their innovative efforts.  It is the combination of state and local creative collaboration that has helped us build a new, stronger, more effective assessment and accountability system.

We also believe that Congress should establish parameters in the reauthorization to ensure that innovative pilots do not result in a step backwards for students.  Federally, we would expect that assurances of technical quality, and breadth and depth of assessments necessary be put in place.

Within a state, local districts wishing to innovate should be able to demonstrate that they will continue to focus on college and/or career outcomes, and are committed to improving the achievement of educationally-disadvantaged students. They should maintain a clearly described internal accountability process and have the leadership necessary to affect a substantive change process. With these parameters in place, we believe that educational improvements and innovative design will flourish throughout the life of the coming reauthorization of ESEA.

We in NH greatly appreciate the opportunity to have our innovative educational practices considered by the Committee.  We look forward to the future with a speedy reauthorization of a much improved Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

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