Opportunities and Limits of the ESSA’s Innovative Assessment and Accountability Demonstration Authority

Written by: Nancy Duchesneau

Primary Source:  Green & Write,  October 11, 2016

Opportunities and Limits of the ESSA’s Innovative Assessment and Accountability Demonstration Authority | Green And Write – Education Policy Research Insights

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) offers new opportunities for states to customize, innovate, and improve their assessment and accountability systems. One such option is the Innovative Assessment and Accountability Demonstration Authority, which gives states and districts a chance to try out a new generation of assessments. Inspired by New Hampshire’s Performance Assessment of Competency Education (PACE) pilot, this provision will allow a handful of states to use local tests rather than a statewide exam, so long as the purpose is to pilot a system that will eventually go statewide. (Check back in two weeks for a post about New Hampshire’s PACE pilot.) The purpose of the demonstration authority is to give states time and space to try out innovative assessment and accountability systems that support student-centered and personalized learning, but it’s become clear that this opportunity is not for the faint of heart.

Application Process

The law affords the Secretary of Education (currently John King) the authority to provide this opportunity to up to seven states (with consortia of states applying together not exceeding four states) for the initial three years of the program. Applications will be peer reviewed by panels of assessment experts. States can consider a wide range of assessment types, including performance tasks, competency-based exams, or others. Deadlines, however, have not yet been set for applications. Instead, the specifics of the process and expectations are still being finessed by the U.S. Department of Education, with input from stakeholders.


The Demonstration Authority is already written into law (see pages 84-92 of ESSA), but a number of questions still surround the implementation and expectations of the pilot system. The U.S. Department of Education has released draft regulations seeking to clarify the requirements, but these proposals are subject to change after receiving Taking a standardized test in purple by barnheartowlfeedback from the public and from a variety of stakeholders.

We do know, however, that the demonstration authority comes with some stringent conditions that aim to ensure states develop high quality assessments that all students, including those from historically marginalized groups, have equitable access to. For example, tests must meet validity and reliability requirements for all students, including English learners and students in special education. These are two populations of students that are not always easy to test. Additionally, tests must show true variability, meaning scores should be able to be used for differentiation between districts. Furthermore, the sample of students in the pilot should be representative of the student population in the state. Ultimately, the pilot system should be able to scale up to the state level by the end of the pilot period, which states should aim to complete within five years. (Currently, draft regulations allow states to request a 2-year extension if the assessment has not been implemented statewide by the end of five years.)


As states determine whether to apply for the Demonstration Authority, a number of sources have been developed to aid their understanding of the responsibilities and possibilities inherent in the pilot. The Council of Chief State School Officers released a document with a decision tree to guide states in making their decision to apply for the pilot. States already have some flexibility to innovate their assessment systems through Part A of Title I in ESSA, but a key difference is that attaining this authority allows states to implement an assessment system in a subset of districts without continuing its current statewide assessment in participating schools for accountability and reporting.

Additionally, KnowledgeWorks and the National Center for the Improvement of Educational Assessment have launched a website to give education leaders guidance for preparing to apply for the Demonstration Authority. The site will include seven briefs that identify critical steps in preparing for the application; three of these briefs are already available.


While questions still surround the specifics of the Innovative Assessment and Accountability Demonstration Authority, the opportunity should ultimately provide states with the opportunity to creatively tailor their assessment and accountability systems to local needs and student-centered learning. While it’s undeniable that many in the United States argue against the expansion of testing, perhaps more thoughtfully created assessments that address some of the criticisms can mediate the dissent. The Demonstration Authority puts this burden, however, squarely on the shoulders of states.

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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.