- Associated Press - Thursday, March 5, 2015

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) - The U.S. Department of Education on Thursday approved a New Hampshire pilot program aimed at reducing standardized testing while providing meaningful feedback for students, parents and teachers.

The federal No Child Left Behind law requires students to take statewide assessment tests each year in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school. Under the two-year pilot program, students in four districts will take the statewide tests in three grades instead of seven - once in elementary school, once in middle school and once in high school.

In offsetting years, the districts will administer locally developed performance assessments, which ask students to apply what they have learned. For example, fourth-grade math students might design a new park and write a letter to local officials explaining their cost calculations.

The pilot program, called Performance Assessment for Competency Education, or PACE, has been in the works for five years. The participating districts are Rochester, Epping, Sanborn Regional and Soughegan, which have a combined enrollment of 8,000 students, or 4 percent of the state’s student population.

Gov. Maggie Hassan said the project will allow districts to reduce the frequency of standardized testing while adopting locally managed assessments that will be more integrated into a student’s day-to-day work.

“New Hampshire is nationally recognized as a leader in competency-based education, and the approval of this pilot project further demonstrates our status as an innovator in public education,” she said.

The testing provisions have been part of the debate as Congress considers changes to No Child Left Behind, which has been credited with shining a light on how schools handle minority, low-income and special-needs students and English learners but led to complaints that teachers were teaching to standardized tests and that mandates were unrealistic and penalties ineffective.

Anne Hyslop, a senior policy analyst with Bellwether Education Partners, a national nonprofit that helps education organizations, said the law already allows local assessments but the challenge has been that individual districts have been unable to show that their local tests were as good as state exams.

“What New Hampshire is doing is taking advantage of this existing provision and putting forward a plan that could actually mean having local assessments that are comparable to one another,” she said. “There’s definitely pressure on the federal government to give local assessments another look, but in New Hampshire, where state has been working on this for years, it has actually required a lot of state coordination, which makes it different than other efforts that were just a single district trying to do its own assessments.”

New Hampshire deputy education commissioner Paul Leather said if the pilot program is successful the department hopes it will expand statewide. But local districts have to be willing to do the work, he said.

“It places more responsibility and accountability in the hands of local educators and gives them a more active role, but they have to be ready to go,” he said.

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