Standards and Assessments

What’s the Issue?

States need to define and adopt a set of academic content standards – the knowledge and skills students should be taught in each grade and subject –aligned with the skills necessary for college and workforce success. Too often, states have developed content standards that did not ensure student preparedness upon leaving high school and set expectations too low for students. 

What was the intervention?

In 2008, many states voluntarily came together to identify knowledge and skills students need for college and workforce success. The Department supported this state-led work, and related work occurring in all states, through the ESEA Flexibility initiative, by which the Department waived some aspects of the No Child Left Behind Act to support states developing comprehensive accountability and intervention systems to support schools in their state. One aspect of this system was the adoption of a set of state-determined college- and career-ready content standards. States could meet these standards by (a) adopting standards held in common by a number of states or (b) through confirmation by the state’s institutions of higher education. In addition, the Department supported the development of new assessment systems to better measure college- and career-ready standards. In 2010, the Department created the Race to the Top Assessment Program to provide funding to two state consortia in developing valid assessments that support and inform instruction, provide accurate information about student competencies and capabilities, and measure student achievement against standards designed to ensure that all students gain the knowledge and skills needed to succeed in college and the workplace. The program-funded assessments aimed to play a critical role in educational systems, provide administrators, educators, parents, and students with the data and information needed to continuously improve teaching and learning, and help meet the President's goal of restoring the nation’s position as the world leader in college graduates by 2020.


In December 2015, the President signed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) into law. The ESSA requires all states and districts to ensure that all students, including students with disabilities, English learners, and other historically-underserved groups are ready for college and for future careers. To measure progress against that goal, and maintain a critical focus on educational equity and excellence for all, the law maintains provisions that require states to administer annual statewide assessments in reading, language arts, and mathematics to all students in grades 3-8, once in high school, and assessments in science during each grade span (elementary, middle, and high school).

How was performance management useful?

The Department made this an Agency Priority Goal, which allowed senior leaders to focus on this goal and discuss the challenges faced by states in adopting and maintaining college- and career-ready standards and determine how the Department’s cross-agency work could support state efforts. This led to the Department releasing non-regulatory guidance in 2015 that established revised criteria for documenting the quality of assessment systems that reflected nationally recognized professional standards. The Department also continued to provide support through the Center on Standards and Assessment Implementation, one of the Department’s technical assistance comprehensive centers. In 2016, after the passage of the ESSA, the Department conducted negotiated rulemaking on state assessments under Title I, reaching consensus with the negotiators to ensure strong requirements are in place regarding the technical quality of state assessments, such as alignment with the state’s college- and career-ready standards and including higher-order and critical thinking skills in the assessment system. 

What was the impact?

By the 2014-2015 school year, 49 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico had adopted college- and career-ready standards. The vast majority of states were administering new assessments aligned to those standards, providing a more accurate measure of student achievement and more valid, reliable, and fair results. Under the ESSA, all states will continue this work to ensure students are taught the skills necessary to succeed after high school and state assessment systems provide data to inform educators, parents, and the public about the progress being made in schools and districts across the country.