NH schools are setting the pace

Four NH school districts will pilot a first-of-its-kind alternative to standardized testing

Figuring out a method for testing what a student has learned in school has stymied researchers, educators, parents and officials for decades. At the crux of this issue is the difference between testing what a student has simply memorized for a test versus testing what he or she has actually mastered.   

Any student can memorize facts and spit them back out for a test, but testing whether a student has actually learned the material to a point where he or she can use it in the future has remained elusive. However, a new push toward competency-based education has resulted in a test that may be able to do just that.

Beginning this year, the Sanborn Regional, Rochester, Epping, and Souhegan school districts will roll out PACE (Performance Assessment for Competency Education), a pilot program that in lieu of multiple-choice questions, includes complex, multi-part tasks that ask students to apply what they have learned in sophisticated ways, according to the NH Department of Education. The PACE districts will administer the assessments, which have been designed and developed by the districts themselves and validated at the state level, according to the state.

In a statement issued by Gov. Maggie Hassan's office, Brian Blake, Superintendent of the Sanborn Regional School District, said "PACE allows us to build rigorous assessments into everyday student learning rather than making the assessments an isolated, special event with no immediate results. We believe our own assessments, as a part of the PACE Pilot, will meet State and Federal accountability requirements. The confidence that the State of New Hampshire has in our teachers has made us stronger and allowed us to prepare for this work."

In New Hampshire, students used to take the NECAP (New England Common Assessment Program) test at predetermined intervals. When Common Core standards were implemented last fall, the plan changed for all districts to take the Smarter Balanced Assessment. Unlike the NECAP, these standardized tests include extended response and technology-enhanced items, as well as performance tasks that allow students to demonstrate critical-thinking and problem-solving skills, according to SmarterBalanced.org.

"Performance tasks challenge students to apply their knowledge and skills to respond to complex real-world problems," according to the website. "These activities are meant to measure capacities such as depth of understanding, writing and research skills, and complex analysis, which cannot be adequately assessed through traditional assessment questions.”

The PACE program is intended to take that idea a step further.

Under the PACE pilot program, Smarter Balanced will still be administered once in elementary school, once in middle school, and once in high school in three grades. However, in all other years, the PACE districts will implement the PACE program to assess students, said Aubrey Scheopner Torres, assistant professor in the Department of Education at Saint Anselm College in Manchester. Torres was a consultant for the development of the PACE program through her role at the Regional Education Laboratory, a federal program whose officials work in partnership with school districts, state departments of education, and others, to improve academic outcomes for students.

Torres said the pilot program is part of a larger movement in New England encouraging schools to adopt a competency-based education model. This allows students to master skills at their own pace — which is good because mastery is a prerequisite for graduation. That said, students have as much time as they need to achieve mastery in subjects where they may be weak, Torres said.

New Hampshire is in the process of adopting parts of this model at the high school level. One of the by products of the move toward competency-based education, Torres said, was discussion of developing a test that not only reflects this new model but that actually measures mastery and can be useful to students and teachers in helping students become competent in weaker areas.

For the past few years, educators from the pilot districts along with the NH Department of Education have been developing the PACE testing program. The program is intended to be a locally designed and controlled assessment tool that may ultimately reduce the amount of student testing, while at the same time making the testing more meaningful.

"We hear about over-testing because we really have two accountability systems," NHDOE Deputy Commissioner Paul Leather said in a statement issued by Gov. Maggie Hassan's office. "The state system is required by federal law but may not help us improve teaching and learning. Schools administer their own tests for that. The PACE pilot brings those together and reduces the testing needed."

 As a result of this work, the US Department of Education has agreed to allow the four New Hampshire districts to be the only districts in the country to pilot this program.

Epping School District Superintendent Barbara Munsey said the district, which has already adopted a competency-based education model, decided to be a part of the pilot program because district officials believe "high-quality performance assessments are the best way to assess student learning." Munsey defines high-quality performance assessments as those that "build and measure student mastery of content and skills at upper levels of cognitive rigor using real-world problems and applications." She said the PACE program does just that.

She added that the test is developed by Epping and other New Hampshire teachers, meaning the people who know their students best are the ones creating the content. Moreover, she said, the tests "integrate naturally with the teacher’s regular unit of instruction, are given throughout the school year in the teacher’s classroom, produce timely results to inform the learning process, and count toward the student’s grade." All of which holds the hope and the potential of making the test less of an exercise to satisfy a requirement and more of a meaningful assessment tool.

“Performance assessments assess content knowledge, but also skills such as technology, project management, and collaboration, which are important for college, career, and life readiness," she said.

According to examples cited by the state Department of Education, as part of the PACE assessment in English, middle school students could turn in research papers showing they know how to analyze and present information from many sources. Another example in math might have fourth-graders designing and costing out a new park, and writing a letter to their board of selectmen arguing a perspective based on their calculations.

The tests will be scored through regional scoring sessions made up of educators and officials and local district peer review audits will be conducted to ensure accountability, according to the NH Department of Education.

Torres said the state is also developing a “task bank” as a resource for keeping quality performance assessments that have been designed by the districts and aligned to the New Hampshire competencies (the state has a draft of competencies that districts can choose to adopt or adapt). The hope is that as the PACE program expands, other districts will be able to use the assessments in the “task bank” and adapt them for their own use.   

Melanie Plenda is a full-time freelance journalist and mother living in Keene.

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