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Navigating the State Testing Landscape in a COVID-19 World

Navigating the State Testing Landscape in a COVID-19 World

On February 22, 2021, chief state school officers were sent a letter from the U.S. Department of Education (ED) indicating that blanket waivers of statewide assessments required under ESEA would not be invited this spring. Since then, a flurry of commentary has been offered from both advocates and critics of this decision while state departments of education commenced with plans to administer assessments under the most unusual circumstances.

Breaking Down the Conversation

In non-pandemic times, statewide assessments are primarily used for policymaking and accountability purposes. Critically important for decisions at the state level related to funding, statewide assessments also help identify achievement patterns across schools and districts that can be used to address equity gaps, evaluate policies and programs, and provide public transparency to the performance of the public education system.

While highly valuable for the aforementioned purposes, these assessments provide limited value to classroom teachers. Statewide assessments must survey academic standards for an entire grade level in a few hours, severely limiting the granularity with which performance would be understood well enough to guide instructional decisions. Results also tend to be released at times incongruent with the school year. Teachers tend to get more value from diagnostic assessments and from formative and instructionally sensitive assessments that they conduct during their instruction.

Therefore, the challenging conversation about the value of statewide assessments is not new this year. Calls for “balanced assessment systems” date far back, such as this report by the National Research Council from 2001. Yet, the COVID-19 pandemic has imposed extraordinary conditions on our education system. The urgency with which states must make decisions about allocation of funding and resources and the urgency with which teachers need to address unfinished learning collide in pandemic limitations of time, space, and equipment.

Why Administer State Assessments During a Pandemic?

Advocates of statewide testing this spring have equally valid points. The letter from ED points to the need to provide information to parents/caregivers, educators, and the public about student performance and to help target resources and supports. Even when acknowledged to be imperfect, statewide assessments are the most reliable measures we have to date for aggregating achievement data across classrooms, schools, and districts due to their high degree of standardization in administration context. Perhaps most persuasively, advocates claim that statewide assessments are essential to understanding achievement and opportunity gaps, which the pandemic has exacerbated. In an open letter to U.S. Secondary of Education Cardona, 14 organizations—including the National Urban League, the National Center for Learning Disabilities, the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center, and the Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents—express serious concern about assessment waivers: “Waiving assessments will only make it harder to identify and address one of the most inequitable school years in history. The data from summative assessments will shine a light on deep inequities and allow us to pave a way forward.”

Why Not?

Critics point to valid reasons to postpone or eliminate assessments this spring. It is widely believed that the pandemic has been responsible for a loss of opportunity to learn in schools, resulting in unfinished learning. Critics are worried that statewide testing will infringe upon already-precious instructional time. In addition, requiring the collection of computers and equipment from vulnerable populations in order to configure them for statewide assessments seems counterintuitive to a desire to close equity gaps. In response to these criticisms, local boards of education and teachers’ associations made proposals for using local and district assessments and circulated them prior to ED’s decision. It is anticipated that many parents/caregivers and students will opt out of testing this year due to health and other concerns, creating gaps in the results that may be difficult to interpret and reduce the overall value of the assessment. These criticisms aren’t only focused on academic opportunities and validity of the data. Many students have experienced trauma during the pandemic. In a letter preceding the ED’s decision, California’s state superintendent of public instruction points to students’ need for positive connections, relationships, and mental health and well-being to be in a better position to learn as a priority over high-stakes assessment.

Striking a Balance

Advocates and critics aside, decisions have been made about how to move forward. Many states have opted for accountability waivers that reduce or remove consequences for teachers, principals, schools, and districts for relaxing participation requirements, for shortening the assessments, for extending testing windows, and for allowing for remote administration. Other states have proposed to reduce the overall number of tests to be administered. For example, Colorado secured approval to assess literacy in grades 3, 5, and 7 and mathematics in grades 4, 6, and 8.

As with so many issues associated with the pandemic, there aren’t easy answers. Viewpoints of both advocates and critics appear equally valid. Yet, as policy makers and educators, we have been forced to examine and articulate the value of each layer of assessment within our education system, along with the tangible and intangible costs of administering those assessments, because COVID-19 has forced new constraints on time, space, and resources. Perhaps there will be a silver lining. Case studies from other disciplines have revealed that severe constraints can be an inspiration for transformative innovation. In searching for ways to reduce the footprint of statewide assessment while retaining impactful data and insights, we may just find ourselves discovering new approaches to solving past tensions.

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