Last month, acting Secretary of Education John King put out a clear call for testing reform.

“At too many schools, there are unnecessary tests without a clear purpose,” he said in a video address. Federal funds are available, he added, for states and districts looking to “audit” their current testing programs and improve the quality of assessment.

King was building on similar remarks from President Obama last fall. The administration at that time released guiding “principles for fewer and smarter assessments,” calling for tests that enhance teaching and learning and supplement other important classwork.

These statements come during somewhat of a new era for education. In December, Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), doing away with the controversial No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). At the center of the old law was frequent, rigorous standardized testing. Federal funding was linked to test performance, and consequences for failure to improve were severe, including teacher layoffs. Schools and teachers felt they had little leeway in lesson design and assessment strategies.

ESSA preserves annual testing in reading and math between third and eighth grade and once in high school. States must continue to report the scores, but they are granted a little more flexibility in determining their weight. States can create their own performance evaluation markers using other determinants of progress in addition to the test scores, and can decide how to intervene when schools struggle to meet the mark. ESSA does not go into full effect until the 2017-2018 school year but until then federal grants may be available for assessment improvement, King said.

What skills we should be assessing in the first place?

A common disparaging refrain during NCLB’s tenure was that it forced educators to “teach to the test.” A fair criticism—but what if, along with easing the emphasis on testing, the tests themselves were changed to better reflect and assess the competencies that students need. Included in ESSA is a pilot program for up to seven states to experiment with assessment methodology. For a model see New Hampshire, a state already using an NCLB waiver to create new state and local tests designed by teachers and administered in only three grades.

The increased flexibility gives us a moment to consider what skills we should be assessing in the first place. We’ve written that “21st century skills” has become a somewhat nebulous buzz-phrase. But at its core is an acknowledgment that a competitive economy—and unequal playing field—demands creativity, initiative, communication skills, and digital literacy. King put it succinctly in his video address when he said tests should measure writing, problem solving, and critical thinking, not rote memorization of facts.

In a manual for educators, the RAND Corporation introduces a spectrum of approaches to testing 21st century competencies. On the more conservative side are efforts to modestly tweak multiple-choice tests. Keeping to the classic model, some organizations are reworking questions to better evaluate critical thinking. A reading test, for example, doesn’t just evaluate comprehension, but has a student select quotes that best support an argument about a passage.

Far beyond the bubble test is the portfolio system. In Singapore, elementary students are tested based on collections of classwork and reflective journal entries. Some educators in the U.S. use this approach too. Of course, time and cost can prohibit such elaborate systems.

Quality testing reveals what a student needs or how an educator can improve.
There has also been movement toward learning with built-in, real-time assessment. EcoMUVE, a computer simulation made at Harvard, is designed to simultaneously teach and assess science knowledge, problem solving, and communication. The game doubles as a two-week course on ecology. Students move throughout a virtual setting, collaboratively investigating a realistic environmental problem. They decide what steps to take—whether to test the pH level of the soil, for example—and eventually write a letter to the mayor once they believe they’ve solved the issue. All the while, assessment data is gathered.

Regardless of what assessment reform looks like, the goal is to eliminate empty evaluations that waste students’ and teachers’ time and take away from meaningful instruction. Quality testing reveals what a student needs or how an educator can improve, so instruction becomes more effective and equitable.

Gathering information from administrators, teachers, and parents, three districts in Illinois last year evaluated the usefulness of local assessments.

“The involvement of school board members and parents in this process was essential,” said the assistant superintendent in one of the districts. “They provided valuable perspectives and kept us focused on one essential question: Does the assessment provide accurate and valuable information to positively impact student achievement?”

The results of the study led to the elimination of certain district tests, giving 12 hours of class time back to instructors. New professional development opportunities were also offered by the state.

So, as the federal government encourages this kind of experimentation and ESSA is ushered in, will standardized testing:

A) disappear
B) improve
C) stay the same
D) too early to tell

The answer is D, but efforts like those in New Hampshire and Illinois have suggested the potential for testing to shift from limited measure to valuable tool for learning.