ESSA and the Future of High School Assessment

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) still requires that high school students be tested at least once in reading/language arts, math, and[…]Continue Reading

Student exam in classroom

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) still requires that high school students be tested at least once in reading/language arts, math, and science. But it gives states quite a bit of wiggle room in designing their high school assessment and accountability systems.

States are now deciding which high school assessments they will use and how these assessments will factor into their accountability systems. Here are two new briefs from Achieve, a non-profit organization focused on high school academic standards, exploring these issues. Both are designed to provide policymakers with the information they need to make important decisions.

“High School Assessments and Accountability During ESSA Transition” lays out the current situation. It provides an overview of the ELA/literacy, mathematics, and science assessments states are using to measure high school students’ achievement within each state’s accountability system and what specific content or grades have been assessed. The picture that emerges is one of great variability.  Achieve hopes that understanding the current landscape might encourage states to think more wisely about future assessment requirements. It wants to help  states create a more coherent assessment and accountability systems. I’m not so sure about that, in part because of the increased flexibility ESSA has granted.

Increased Flexibility

Achieve examines that part of the puzzle in “High School Assessment in a New Era”. ESSA allows states to use “nationally recognized high school academic assessments” like the ACT and SAT as their sole high school assessment. It also gives states the option of permitting individual districts to use such a nationally recognized test in place of a state test. Either way, ESSA requires states to show that these assessments are technically sound and align to the states’ standards.

External pressures, such as cost and concerns about “too much testing” could push the states toward using these college entrance exams. Indeed, some states are already administering one of these exams in an effort to raise expectations for all students. Adopting that same test for accountability purposes cuts down on the number of tests a student must take and saves time and money.


The issue, however, revolves around the purpose(s) of the assessment. High school assessments serve many purposes. These include school and district accountability, determining student readiness for graduation, college admission, and more. No one test can support all these purposes.

The issue brief posits that states will have to compromise. They will have one of two choices: 1) Adopt a system of assessments that work together. Or 2) select a single assessment appropriate only for the highest-priority purposes. Creating a system of assessments that serve many purposes may make sense; but it can technically challenging and may result in additional state tests, more testing time, and additional costs. As a result, it’s hard to imagine too many states willing to take on those additional challenges right now.

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