As school divisions across the country seek ways to adopt teaching methods that provoke critical thinking rather than fact memorization, educators must find new methods to measure students’ progress.

Moving from student achievement assessments that measure knowledge to assessments that measure a students’ ability to learn and think is not a new idea, but it is returning to the fore as education policy at the state and national level is changing.

In late 2015, President Obama signed into law the Every Child Succeeds Act, a new federal initiative that gave states more control over their education systems. It replaced No Child Left Behind, a 2001 law signed by George W. Bush, which was criticized for a “one size fits all” approach.

At a Monday conference at the University of Virginia hosted by the Virginia Department of Education and Jobs for the Future, education researchers and officials from around the country lauded Virginia’s efforts to have school divisions work individually on alternative testing.

“In Virginia it is not just one division that is leading, a big city or a small locality; it is all of them at once,” said Rebecca Wolf, senior director of Students at the Center, an initiative of Jobs for the Future. “It is not following one model, it is looking at all of them and seeing what works.”

Schools around the Commonwealth began working on new approaches to testing with the elimination in 2014 of five standardized tests for third- through eighth-graders. 

The state guidelines for the tests encourage collaboration, the integration of subjects onto the same test and performance assessments.

The individual approach, said Ray Pecheone, executive director of the Stanford Center for Assessment, Learning and Equity, gives teachers and administrators the ability to fit tests to lessons, rather than stopping everything to address standardized tests.

“We need to translate common sense into common practice,” he said. “What Virginia is doing makes common sense. What has been missing to date is that what teachers were doing day-to-day, week-to-week, didn’t count … It didn’t count toward standardized testing.”

William and Mary College of Education Professor Christopher Gareis presented a seven-step path to implementing performance assessments.

The process moved from readying school divisions to think about alternative testing, designing programs, researching and bringing the work to fruition.

Gareis designed the steps to be readily shuffled around, so different schools systems can find the best way to make the process work for them.

The framework indicates a linear process, but the fact is that innovation is not linear,” Gareis said. “Innovation is a recursive process … This is intended as a guide for your decision making along the way.”

In Albemarle County, that meant asking teachers how best to tackle the issue, said Debbie Collins, executive director of K-12 education for Albemarle County Public Schools.

Instead of focusing the performance-based tests on subject knowledge, Collins said, the division worked to tests students’ competency at research, critical thinking and ability to work methodically through a problem.

“We believe our teachers are our experts, so we have gone to them first to do this,” she said.

Though tests were developed for different subject areas, officials were mostly testing for ability to think and reason, Collins said. Later, teachers developed content and competency-based rubrics to grade a single test.

“We developed multiple layers of rubrics,” Collins said. “I am giving one test, but I can score it based on math and I can score it based on lifelong learning competencies.”

For Carol Tomlinson, chair of educational leadership, foundations and policy at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education, training lifelong learners is central to being human.

“Humans developed the disciplines to answer that question: ‘What is life and who am I in it?’” she said. “That is why we teach History, why we teach English, why we teach math.”