NH and NC Forge Ahead with Innovative Assessments Amid the Pandemic


October 28, 2020

Since releasing our briefs outlining innovative assessment pilots in New Hampshire and North Carolina earlier this year, the pandemic has upended assessments with states cancelling spring 2020 testing. These cancellations had the potential to seriously impede the progress of developing and scaling up new assessment systems being conducted under the Innovative Assessment Demonstration Authority (IADA), so we reached out to both states to see how the pandemic has shaped their plans. 

Perhaps surprisingly, both states viewed the pandemic as a minor hiccup in their plans and are optimistic about implementation: 

  • Both NH and NC have continued to see growing interest from districts to join the pilot. NC did lose two districts this fall because of the pandemic but they are happy with the number of schools and feel they adequately represent the demographics of the state.
  • Both states also believe that their implementation timelines are on track, despite a year of lost data. NH already has a large bank of common tasks to draw from for the current year, and NC is committed to their original timeline in compliance with state law.
  • NH found their assessments were able to easily translate to distance learning, with many teachers informally administering performance tasks online this past spring. 

However, the uncertainty of the pandemic is a large risk for both states: 

  • North Carolina currently plans to administer all assessments in person in the spring—regardless of a district’s mode of instruction—which could lead to large numbers of students opting out of tests and threats to reliability and validity for those assessments administered to students at home.
  • Similarly, in addition to testing concerns, New Hampshire has intensive training and task development sessions scheduled to be conducted in-person starting in January which could be compromised if there is a resurgence in the virus this winter. 

New Hampshire 

In the Granite State, much of the work related to Performance Assessment for Competency Education (PACE) has been paused as a result of the pandemic. The state was unable to formally test any of its performance tasks—the multi-step prompts that comprise the state’s innovative assessment system—meaning the state was unable to gather any data to help establish comparability with their traditional assessments, New Hampshire Statewide Assessment System (NHSAS). 

The state will also be amending its performance task development process this year, extending the timeline beyond the normal testing window, meaning any new tasks created this year will likely not be part of any task calibration when testing occurs next spring. Additionally, Motivus, the data management company that the state was using to house their performance tasks and collect assessment data went out of business, forcing staff to relocate their data to Google Classroom. 

While the pandemic has created some speed bumps in PACE’s progress, Ellen Hume-Howard, executive director of New Hampshire Learning Initiative (NHLI)—the company that handles the day-to-day operations of PACE’s development—expressed optimism about the current state of the pilot. “When COVID-19 forced educators to engage learners remotely, the PACE performance tasks were used by many teachers as core to their instruction this spring,” says Hume-Howard. “Teachers found the tasks were focused on competency, were easy to break-down for instruction, and that the content and inquiry of the tasks kept students interested.” Teachers were still able to gain experience with PACE performance tasks while also demonstrating how nimble the new system could be. Educators reported that, because performance tasks are so well integrated into their curriculum, they were able to easily adapt them to remote learning for informal use. 

There are other encouraging signs as well. Migrating data to Google Classroom turned out to be less onerous than expected and may ultimately serve the state better now that school closures have caused educators across the state to be well-versed with the platform. And district interest in the innovative assessment system is higher than ever. Hume-Howard reported that 85 of the state’s 168 districts participated in various levels of PACE training last year (though only about 5% of districts are actually involved at the level of administering performance tasks), and an informational session over the summer to join the task development process had fifteen new districts in attendance. 

Despite this, there are a couple notes of caution for the future. First, according to Hume-Howard, over half of the new districts interested in PACE are focused on science, perhaps limiting the state’s ability to gain much needed comparability data in ELA and math. And second, while the NHLI has conducted two virtual training sessions so far this year, much of the new PACE work is scheduled to begin in-person in January. Any resurgence of the coronavirus could put this progress in jeopardy. 

North Carolina

The state’s initial plan was to field test items for its innovative NCPAT system this past spring. While these field tests have been delayed to this school year, the planned timeline for scaling the assessment statewide has not changed. To accomplish this, North Carolina’s in-house assessment department will accelerate their original timeline by piloting both reading and math in grades 4 and 7 this year, rather than a single subject in each as originally planned. Though this may not be ideal, North Carolina Department of Public Instruction’s (NCDPI) Tammy Howard notes that the state has limited flexibility because their timeline is dictated by state law, not just the US Department of Education’s pilot program.

Howard also pointed to an increase in the number of participating schools and districts–despite the pandemic—as a positive sign. The pilot now has 14 districts and eight charter schools—or a total of 148 schools—which is a significant jump from the two districts and one charter school the state had when it first applied to IADA. While they did lose two districts this fall because of the pandemic, NCDPI is happy with the number of schools and feel they adequately represent the demographics of the state.

Given that NCDPI is still in the early stages of their pilot, the pandemic has not affected professional development efforts. The state hosted a webinar with participating districts over the summer to give folks an update on the pilot. However other than status updates, no formal training is planned for this year since items are just being field tested within existing assessments. NCDPI has a contract with the Friday Institute, which is currently developing a comprehensive PD program that will be rolled out during the 2021-22 school year.  

Despite this, spring assessment administration is a cause for concern for keeping the pilot on track. NCDPI initially considered remote testing, but at this point the state is not entertaining this as an option, particularly for pilot testing innovative assessment items, due to concerns about validity and reliability. However, these could also be compromised by students opting out. While technically North Carolina does not allow students to opt-out of assessments, NCDPI expects there to be some opt-outs in the spring if students are still learning remotely. Currently in districts with remote learning, local officials determine whether students can come into school buildings to take assessments but there has been push back on multiple fronts with concerns about health and safety from administrators, teachers, and parents. If these opt-outs are high, this could jeopardize and delay IADA item field tests. 

How New Hampshire and North Carolina (as well as fellow IADA participants Georgia and Louisiana) are able to navigate their pilot assessments in the wake of the pandemic will likely shape the trajectory of assessment innovation for the foreseeable future. And given the growing appetite across the political spectrum to fundamentally change how students, teachers, and schools are assessed, the stakes have never been higher.