Lessons from New Hampshire’s PACE

Written by: Nancy Duchesneau

Primary Source:  Green & Write,  October 29, 2016

As a previous post discussed, the Innovative Assessment and Accountability Demonstration Authority was inspired by New Hampshire’s Performance Assessment of Competency Education (PACE) pilot. As states consider applying for the authority to develop their own assessment pilots, attention has turned to PACE and what lessons can be gleaned from New Hampshire’s experience.

What is PACE?

In 2015, the U.S. Department of Education gave New Hampshire permission to pilot a new accountability and assessment system that seeks to support more meaningful learning for students through evidence-based learning theories and organizational change in schools. The result, PACE, gives local districts an increased role in the design and implementation of the system with guidance and support from the state department of education. Currently there are only a few districts involved in the pilot, but New Hampshire’s Department of Education is working to expand to the rest of the state.

The competency-based assessment system involves a number of formative assessments that teachers give to their students often throughout the school year. These assessments, designed and administered at the local level, may include homework assignments, in-class questions, or other measures that provide teachers with formative information regarding student mastery of certain competencies. The participating districts also create common, complex performance assessments together with the state department of education as a way to evaluate comparability across districts. Lastly, state assessments are given only in select grades, providing some psychometric comparability; Smarter Balanced is administered in 3rd, 4th, and 8th grade while the SAT is administered in 11th grade.

A number of concerns arise regarding the quality of assessments used, including their validity and reliability. While New Hampshire’s department of education makes it clear that the goal is not to attain psychometric comparability across districts through this pilot, the intent is to ensure that students are held to comparable (and high) expectations, meaning a student should be able to receive similar judgments of competency in all districts. To ensure this, PACE involves five levels of quality control: professional learning communities and collaboration across districts, content experts that help ensure all performance tasks meet intended principles, reviews of the common task by technical experts at the National Center for the Improvement of Educational Assessment, state-level reviews of the common task, and reviews of the data once students have performed the tasks. More details of the PACE pilot are available here.

What Can States Learn From PACE?

While states are by no means obligated to adopt New Hampshire’s assessment and accountability system to participate in the Demonstration Authority, there are some laudable characteristics that states may want to consider incorporating into their own designs. In particular, the mechanism through which New Hampshire won local support for the pilot was through local involvement in system design decisions. The foundation of the system is based upon reciprocity in which local educational leaders are held accountable for performance in the systems they helped design in return for the state being held responsible for providing the capacity to districts to reach their goals through intense technical and practical support. While this reciprocity may seem to be a basic expectation, it is one that local leaders have often cited as lacking (See Darling-Hammond & Snyder, 2015).

Furthermore, a critical component of the PACE approach is a return of respect for teachers and local expertise. Through professional learning communities in which teachers are treated as professionals who learn from their peers and other experts, there is higher buy in from local actors who, ultimately, are in charge of implementing the learning process and administering the assessments. Teachers are thus trusted to make judgment calls regarding student learning and mastery of competencies. This concept is sure to raise eyebrows from some policymakers, but is one that teachers and local education professionals have advocated for, and it has arguably been successful with PACE.

Lastly, a critical takeaway from the success of PACE is that an end-of-year summative state exam that seeks psychometric comparability across districts is not the only way to evaluate student learning. While questions still remain regarding the scaling up of PACE and how the system will address struggling schools, these are questions that experts, local educational leaders, and state educational leaders are now grappling with. This is a much better situation than what is currently more common: a commitment to exams which face daily criticism from the public and from education professionals. Although states have become accustomed to this way of measuring school quality since No Child Left Behind, the Demonstration Authority is an opportunity to think outside the box and innovate new ways to not only evaluate student learning, but also encourage deeper learning.

Contact Nancy: Duchesn4@msu.edu

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Nancy Duchesneau
Prior to joining the Education Policy Ph.D. program, Nancy utilized her B.S. in psychology by working as a private in-home tutor and a sub-contracted tutor in public schools. Currently in her third year, Nancy’s research interests stem from the belief that education must work in tandem with other policy areas, yet must also provide a base level of holistic support to all students. Topics of interest include social-emotional learning, in-school health programs, accountability, and equity.