Young lives. Old problems. New solutions.
Fifth graders take a math exam with PACE testing at Maple Street Magnet Elementary School in Rochester, N.H. The Granite State is reducing the number of paper and pencil tests students take in favor of hands-on assessments.
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
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Test Drive: New Hampshire teachers build new ways to measure deeper learning

Paths to progress

Schools across the country are watching as some New Hampshire schools start relying less on standardized testing and more on performance-based assessments.

Just outside Concord High School, a delivery truck has spilled its chemical supplies. The students’ mission: Investigate the properties of the spill and develop a detailed plan to clean it up safely.

Teenagers wearing safety goggles squat down, sucking up samples of the clear liquid with pipettes. The simulated spill has been “contained” in a fish tank. But the students play along, first by developing some “testable questions” with their partners: How acidic is it? How does it compare with the properties of each substance on the truck?

They’ll have four class periods over the course of several days to collect and record data with assigned partners, and to write up, individually, their plans.

Increasingly, this is what testing looks like in New Hampshire. It’s an activity, much like work students have done in class, though more extensive. They can refer to their notes. What they can’t do is guess.

“Making them get up and kind of prove [their understanding] is a lot more telling than giving them multiple-choice or essay questions, where it’s kind of just repeating what you’ve taught them,” says Concord chemistry teacher Lyn Vinskus.

New Hampshire is at the forefront of a movement being watched by schools across the country.

For more than a decade, schools in the Granite State have been transitioning to competency-based education, in which students are asked to demonstrate mastery of essential skills rather than simply spend a certain amount of time in class and get a minimum passing grade. The focus is on the kinds of skills – analysis, reflection, creativity, and strategic thinking – today’s students will need in order to thrive in an unpredictable world.

But new teaching methods require new types of testing. So the state decided to put teachers in the driver’s seat.

The standardized tests by which schools were held accountable for more than a decade, under the federal education law known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB), did a lot to expose equity gaps. But many educators saw them as too narrowly fixated on basic math and reading.

More recently, coalitions of states have developed tests related to the Common Core State Standards – to better measure a range of relevant skills. New Hampshire uses one of those standardized testing systems, known as Smarter Balanced. But it wanted to go further.

“You really can’t do competency ed as an externally, top-down driven accountability system,” says Paul Leather, New Hampshire’s deputy commissioner of education. “We’re building a system where the assessments are back in the hands of educators and students.”

This teacher-driven approach has strong potential, because “it’s the people on the ground who implement change who are ultimately going to determine whether it’s successful,” says Thomas Toch, director of FutureEd, a think tank at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy in Washington. But state and federal education officials still need to be able to check on those local efforts through “clear, rigorous assessments,” he says.

That’s the blend that New Hampshire hopes it can get right through the system it is piloting known as PACE, short for Performance Assessment of Competency Education. Concord is one of nine school districts (including one charter school) implementing PACE so far, with 11 more in the pipeline, a list that grows each year.

A system Einstein might have liked

As the chemistry students cluster around a cart of materials – everything from pH strips to baking soda – partners Mackenzie Lyons and Yianna Buterbaugh, both sophomores, chat quietly about what they learned in previous labs that will help them analyze the spill.

Mackenzie fills the small wells of a plastic tray with ammonia, hydrochloric acid, and other possible ingredients, and Yianna grabs a conductivity meter. They dip the meter in and then chart, on hand-drawn data tables, the color and brightness of the light on the meter, repeating for each sample.

Einstein – framed, with chin in hand – peers down from atop a cabinet. This genius who never made friends with rote learning would probably be impressed with what’s not happening in Vinskus’s classroom.

“Not one student has asked me yet, ‘How much is this going to count in my grade?’ ” Vinskus says. “None of them will just leave it blank or say, ‘I don’t know,’ ” including the boy who groaned when he walked in, and who has done just that on traditional tests. Kids of all ability levels are “engaging in science,” she says, “and that’s a win.”

Mackenzie says she often gets “stressed out” when she thinks about tests. But with a performance assessment, “I just think about it as a normal classroom activity.” She also likes completing it over several days. “If we have a question, we can go home and research it and then come back on Friday with a solution.”

Looking up information isn’t cheating – because it’s not her memory of basic facts that’s being tested.

“Knowledge is at our fingertips…. But we want to see that our students can really pull that together, can think through, can apply their understanding to real-world situations,” says Donna Palley, Concord’s assistant superintendent.

Mackenzie is considering a science career, and she likes how this approach pushes her: “You have to do analytical thinking more … [and] be able to problem-solve.” Her partner, Yianna, doesn’t see chemistry in her future, but she says the real-life scenarios “make it a little more interesting … and easier to think about.”

The 'perfect teaching to the test'

Educators cite several advantages to performance-based assessments, among them:

  • They can be given throughout the school year when they naturally fit into the curriculum, rather than during a standardized testing window.
  • They can be given in a wide range of subjects, including science and social studies.
  • Scores become part of students' grades, making them more invested than they would be for a standardized test.
  • Instead of waiting for results to come back, teachers can quickly pinpoint what each student still needs to master.

“It’s like the perfect ‘teaching to the test’ ... because it represents exactly what you want students to be able to do,” Ms. Palley says.

Once a year, for each subject tested, students across all PACE districts also do “common tasks” like the one at Concord High, which are developed by teams of teachers.

Many teachers say the related professional development is the best they’ve ever had, because they grow in their ability to move more students toward the goals. “To work with teachers in other districts, that’s really cool – hearing what they’re doing or how to tackle a problem,” Vinskus says.

In Rochester, N.H., another PACE district, Melissa Cunliffe recently took stock of her students’ understanding of force and motion by having them follow instructions from a YouTube video for making a car with cups, straws, and rubber bands.

The mixed class of third- and fourth-graders at Maple Street Magnet School rose to the occasion when they found their cars weren’t working, she says. “Everybody [was] popping up with their own ideas to solve this problem…. They were doing real-life collaboration and … questioning the design, wanting to write to the people who created the video.”

Afterward, students wrote reflective papers, explaining what worked and what didn’t. She evaluated those, but also took notes during the task about their thinking process and verbal sharing. “It’s not just, ‘Here’s your test now,’ ” she says.

Sara Cantrell, another Maple Street teacher, says the performance-based assessments – and the related changes in teaching – help students at all levels. Those excelling in an area continue to get challenging work. For students performing below the targets, test results are no longer “a blanket statement about them,” she says.

Making sure the test scores are useful

New Hampshire has been able to use PACE for federal accountability purposes since 2015, when it received a one-of-a-kind waiver from the US Department of Education.

In PACE districts, students have to take state standardized tests only once in elementary school, once in middle school, and once in high school, while most students take them every year in grades 3 to 8 and once in high school.

But as states adopt new plans under the Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaces NCLB, they have more flexibility for how they measure success. From Colorado to Kentucky, a number of states are starting to incorporate performance-based assessments into their systems.

These “alternatives” aren’t brand new. In the 1990s, before NCLB kicked in, some states used performance assessments or graded portfolios of student work. “A lot of this has been tried before, and the problems are really steep,” says Daniel Koretz, an assessment expert at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. One of the toughest challenges: understanding how test scores compare from one district to another. 

Educators here say they haven’t experienced significant public pushback to PACE, though some groups have voiced concerns about the new form of testing.

Multiple steps are in place to reassure people that teachers aren’t inflating grades. First, teachers in a given school and district agree on how to score student work in each subject. In the summer, state officials bring teachers together to calibrate the scoring across all the PACE districts. Finally, the state compares PACE students’ scores on the Smarter Balanced tests with those of their non-PACE peers.

Preliminary research findings “suggest that PACE students are provided an equitable opportunity to learn and are benefiting from the assessment system,” University of New Hampshire doctoral candidate Carla Evans notes in an email to the Monitor. Her analysis of 8th -grade students’ math scores on Smarter Balanced found that in the second year of the pilot, PACE students outperformed those in non-PACE districts, on average. For students with disabilities, the difference was even stronger.

Letting teachers take the lead

For the performance-assessment vision to scale up statewide, several elements would need to fall into place, says Scott Marion, executive director of the Center for Assessment in Dover, N.H., which provides technical assistance for PACE.

A few more years of startup funding – which has largely been covered by foundation grants so far – will be needed, as well as continued leadership at the state level, he says. But the “Holy Grail” they’re still searching for is a technology system to integrate data and to allow for more efficient sharing of student work to be scored by people in far-apart districts.

Cantrell, at Maple Street, says easing into performance assessments is essential, because “it’s a real different mentality, and some teachers have struggled with that more than others.”

Her school welcomed dozens of educators from around the state in April. In small groups led by students, they trooped through classrooms as part of an “innovation studio” run by the nonprofit New Hampshire Learning Initiative.

“Our teachers … are the ones driving this work,” says NHLI executive director Jonathan Vander Els, a former principal in a PACE district.  The state is “recognizing and leaning on the expertise of the professionals who are in our classrooms,” he says, and in a lot of places, “that’s been missing.”

This story was produced with support from the Education Writers Association Reporting Fellowship program.