Nebraska and Maine Assessment Models

K-12 Testing

Despite its many flaws (see Examiner, Winter 2001-02), the new federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) does not require states to administer more standardized tests. Under the recent reauthorization of ESEA, states will be required to conduct “academic assessments” in reading and math of every student annually in grades 3-8 and once in high school by the 2005-06 school year, and later for science in a few grades.

While most states are expected to administer standardized tests to meet this requirement, Maine and Nebraska have already begun to develop “mixed systems” that integrate state-administered exams and local assessments. Several other states are considering doing the same. Assessment reform activists should pressure their states to follow this lead.

Nebraska Education Commissioner Doug Christensen says that Nebraska’s assessment system can meet the requirements of the new federal law, as specified in draft regulations (see article, p. 9). The Student-based, Teacher-led Assessment and Reporting System (STARS) requires school districts to develop local assessment plans that are aligned with state (or district) learning standards. The STARS plan emphasizes the importance of using multiple assessment measures, rather than relying on a single test.

Currently, a combination of norm- and criterion-referenced assessments is required for evaluating students in grades 4, 8, and 11 in mathematics, reading/writing, science, and social studies. The norm-referenced tests must be selected from a state-determined list. Districts can develop their own criterion-referenced instruments (which may include classroom assessments such as observations, portfolios, or rubrics) or they can purchase them from commercial publishers. In addition, all students in grades 4, 8, and 11 will participate in a statewide writing assessment. The state has not yet decided how it will address the requirement for assessing in grades 3, 5, 6 and 7.

Districts must follow six criteria in designing their assessment plans: assessments reflect state or local standards; students have an opportunity to learn the content; assessments are free from bias; the level is developmentally appropriate for students; there is consistency in scoring; and mastery levels are appropriate. Local assessment plans are submitted to the Nebraska Department of Education for review by an independent panel that rates their quality.

To provide examples of high quality, the state identified and publicized four models for each of the six criteria. Districts are encouraged either to adapt their assessments to be similar to the models, or to simply adopt a model component to meet a particular criterion. Districts are also encouraged to submit their plans to an independent agency for review every five years.

In essence, Nebraska has created standards for local assessments, a means to evaluate them in light of the standards, and a structure for ensuring that every district’s assessments improve.

The Buros Center for Testing (whose related work at the Buros Institute includes publication of the Mental Measurement Yearbooks) has assisted the state and has reviewed district assessments. Buros staff found the districts generally produced strong assessments and are willing to improve. Jim Impara of Buros explained that most districts decided not to simply develop criterion-referenced exams but to utilize classroom-based assessments that could have a more positive impact on teaching and learning. This requires building district capacity to train teachers and ensure high-quality classroom instruction. While some superintendents have been resistant to this process, many are coming around as they see that it results in students learning more. Consortia of districts are also forming to develop assessments, in part because Nebraska has many small districts among its 556 local systems.

Maine’s mixed approach combines data from both the Maine Educational Assessment (MEA) – a criterion-referenced exam in six subjects aligned to state standards which is administered in grades 4, 8, and 11 – and local assessments. Drawing from the Principles and Indicators for Student Assessment Systems of the National Forum on Assessment (see Examiner, Fall-Winter 1995-96; and order form, p. 15), the assessment program is guided by “integrating assessment into classroom instruction, providing adequate time and training, utilizing multiple tools to assess students, and aligning with state learning standards.”

Beginning with the Class of 2007, graduation (which is determined at the local level) will be contingent upon achievement on the assessments, first in some then in all subject areas.

With assistance from the state, local school districts are now designing plans that combine the MEA exams with classroom, school, district, and/or regional assessments. The local assessments can include classroom-based portfolios, observations and exhibitions, as well as district-administered exams and tasks. For example, the city of Bangor’s school district draws from classroom portfolios and locally-created writing and reading tests to evaluate students’ language arts skills. Aggregated data from the assessments are reported publicly as well as to the schools. City assessment results are combined with classroom-based assessment information by teachers and administrators and used to guide and modify instruction.

Superintendents are to certify local assessments to meet state technical requirements. If local and state assessment results vary greatly, the state will review the local assessments.

More States
A number of other states, including Vermont, Rhode Island, and Wyoming, have indicated interest in developing systems that combine limited state exams with local assessments to comply with the new ESEA requirements. A consortium of New England states is beginning to form to strengthen this process. Already, Vermont and Maine are collaborating on portfolios, based in part on Vermont’s long-standing portfolio program (see Examiner, Winter 1993-94).

In developing new systems, districts and schools can draw on existing, high-quality classroom-based assessments to gather rich, reliable information about student learning. These include the Learning Record (see Examiner, Fall 2001) and the Work Sampling System (see Examiner, Spring 2001).

No Panacea
The Maine and Nebraska approaches are promising models for ESEA compliance. However, ESEA still has serious problems, in particular a rigidly bureaucratic approach to accountability (see Examiner, Winter 2001-02 and FairTest website) regardless of the forms of assessment a state may use.

There are also significant questions that should be asked of the Maine and Nebraska systems, which apply to other state’s initiatives. For example:

• Are the standards reasonable and appropriate or seriously flawed, such as too detailed?
• Will there be too much testing?
• Will assessing to state standards via local assessments, particularly with high stakes for schools or students, lead to excessive standardization of classroom assessments, undermining teacher flexibility in best serving the varied needs of their students?
• To what extent will local assessments be limited to district-made exams, as is happening in some cases in Maine and Nebraska, and will the states insist that districts include classroom-based, bottom-up information?

Information on Maine and Nebraska’s assessment plans, as well as resources related to classroom-based student evaluations, can be found on the Web.

Nebraska STARS:
Buros Institute:
FairTest authentic assessment page
The Learning Record:
Work Sampling:
CARE Authentic Assessment Plan
FairTest discussion of the ESEA is available here.
Up Close and Personal, Article from 5/22/02 Education Week written by Lynn Olson