SCORE President and CEO Jamie Woodson sent a letter about the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) to members of the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions on February 4, 2015. Here are excerpts of that letter, which calls for continuing the annual assessment requirement:

Tennessee has made notable progress in improving student achievement over the last five years thanks to a package of student-focused policy changes and the hard work of educators across the state. Annual assessments have given Tennessee educators and policymakers valuable data for assessing the impact of these changes and for making student-focused decisions. The experience in Tennessee and other states makes clear that what is measured matters.

As Congress works on reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), better known to the public as No Child Left Behind, it is important to provide flexibility to Tennessee and other states in implementing student-centered education policies. It is equally important that the law continue to ensure a reliable mechanism for tracking progress on academic achievement for these reasons:

Annual statewide assessments are needed to gauge student performance. Annual assessments provide the most reliable, objective measure of whether or not students are growing academically, thereby giving state leaders valuable data for making informed decisions about support, funding, and policy.

Grade-span testing, the most-discussed option to annual assessment, would weaken state accountability systems by emphasizing proficiency over year-to-year academic growth. Grade-span testing also would severely limit the availability of information that teachers, leaders, and parents need to provide a high-quality education to all students. Grade-span testing simply does not provide teachers and parents with enough information about how a student is progressing.

Across Tennessee, teachers and principals use data from the annual Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program (TCAP) to help their students reach learning goals. As principal at Frank Brown Elementary School in Crossville, Tennessee, Christie Thompson worked with her school leadership team each summer to employ the data from TCAP to create a roadmap for the next term. “Annual testing provides us with big picture data about our school and about groups of students,” says Thompson, now the assistant superintendent of human relations for her school district. This data-driven approach to instruction and decision-making helped the school achieve student growth in math, reading, and science that significantly surpassed the statewide averages. “We’re completely alarmed at the idea of moving away from annual testing,” Thompson says. “Annual testing allows us to ensure that we are not letting our students fall through the cracks.”

Annual statewide assessments are a critical tool for teachers and principals. The information that teachers and principals gain from annual statewide assessments is critical to understanding how their students perform relative to others in the school, district, and state. This information allows teachers and principals to track progress over time, set annual goals, evaluate programs for effectiveness, inform professional learning opportunities for teachers, and better understand how best to support students.

Tennessee has required annual assessment since at least the 1990s. “Tennessee educators are used to receiving this information and rely upon it to make data-driven decisions,” says Dr. Mike Winstead, director of Maryville City Schools. Annual statewide assessment results led the district to overhaul of its fourth-grade math program by revising curriculum and providing additional support to teachers, and the outcome has been more growth and higher proficiency rates for students. “Without the information that annual tests provide, we wouldn’t have been able to pinpoint the problem and work towards a solution that benefits students,” Winstead says.

Without a federal requirement for annual statewide assessment, state policymakers could be tempted and pressured to opt out of annual statewide assessments. A patchwork could emerge of locally developed assessments of varying quality and limited reliability that would make comparisons between schools and districts impossible. Parents need the reliable information provided by annual assessments in order to make informed choices about their children’s education.

Annual statewide assessments help ensure parents and policymakers have access to honest, reliable information about school performance. While education decisions are best made at the local and state level, it is crucial that a reauthorized ESEA require annual statewide assessments so states have a reliable set of information upon which to base decision-making related to education. Annual statewide assessments provide a common measuring stick so state leaders are presented with a sound understanding of the educational performance of schools and districts.

There is widespread agreement that one of the most significant benefits of NCLB has been the use of annual assessment data to identify and address previously hidden achievement gaps and inequities. Annual assessments have provided vital information that teachers, principals, and district leaders use to guide intervention and create student support in order to close achievement gaps. Without required annual assessments, the gaps again will be obscured.

Annual statewide assessment results have led to concentrated work by Tennessee educators to produce strong gains for African-American students in fourth-grade math, with proficiency rates improving by 16 percentage points on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Yet, Tennessee still has significant work remaining to erase achievement gaps, as shown in the chart.

AR 2015 Achievement GapsDr. Mike Winstead, Director of Schools for Maryville City Schools, says a move away from annual testing to grade-span testing would make it difficult for school and district leaders to pinpoint students who are not growing and to act swiftly to respond. “While we appreciate local flexibility and think we know what’s best for our students, we need the state to calculate growth scores and keep annual testing as a common measuring stick for districts across the state. We simply wouldn’t have the capacity within our district to create this information that we find so valuable to informing what we do,” Winstead says.

Required annual assessments ensure that taxpayers are getting results from the investment of their tax dollars. Policymakers need information from annual assessments to understand where improvements are needed in a state’s education system and to understand how effective state and federal investments have been in improving education. Taxpayers deserve to have a measuring stick to gauge whether local, state, and federal investments and policy changes are driving improvements in student achievement.  This would be impossible without an annual, required assessment.

As Congress  considers a reauthorized ESEA, it is critically important to take a student-focused approach. Annual statewide assessments support key policies that give parents, teachers, students, and policymakers important information to improve student learning and help keep Tennessee on track toward the goal of ensuring that all students are prepared for success after high school.