Just about everyone wants better, more useful standardized tests. (iStockphoto)

The nation’s new federal education law makes room for states to design and try out new and better ways to measure what kids know, because just about everyone agrees on this: Standardized tests as currently delivered in U.S. public schools leave something to be desired.

The law, known as the Every Student Succeeds Act, allows seven states to design and test “innovative assessments” starting with a few districts and then scaling up to schools statewide over a period of five years.

The Education Department on Wednesday proposed draft regulations that outline in more detail how the pilot program will work, including what states will have to explain about their proposed new test when they apply to participate.

States don’t have to try to overhaul their whole testing program all at once, according to the proposed rules: They can choose one grade level to work on, or one subject area.

The draft regulations do not suggest a timeline for states to apply for the program and begin administering new tests. But it almost certainly won’t be the Obama administration that chooses the participating states, agency officials said. Because of the federal timeline for receiving comment, publishing final regulations and soliciting applications, that decision will be left to the next president and his or her education secretary.

Chris Minnich of the Council of Chief State School Officers said that the proposal seems to “balance the need to ensure that any pilot would give all kids the same opportunities, while leaving room for states to innovate.”

In addition the draft rules on innovative tests, the Education Department also proposed a separate set of testing regulations that would, among other things, allow districts to do away with state tests at the high school level and instead administer the SAT, ACT or other “nationally recognized” assessment. The proposed language reflects a consensus reached earlier this year by negotiators who represented a variety of constituents and perspectives in the education world.

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said that the regulations overall don’t do enough to reduce schools’ overemphasis on testing. But she praised the innovative assessment rules for giving states a way to measure student learning with portfolios, project-based learning and other approaches that “determine a more well-rounded and holistic view of student learning, rather than just rote memorization.”

The draft regulations are now available online at the Education Department’s website and are expected to be published in the Federal Register next week, according to agency officials. Publication in the Federal Register will kick off a 60-day public comment period.

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