Amanda Aisen is the Executive Director of Education at Academic Approach, a tutoring service that empowers students and educators from all backgrounds to grow scores, skills, and confidence both on and beyond standardized tests.
Education unions, school leaders and state governments across the country are beginning to request waivers from the annual standardized tests students are scheduled to take this spring. These tests, which are mandated under the main federal K-12 education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, are designed to measure schools’ performance and determine which districts need more public education funds.
The specific content, format, and usage of these tests may vary from state to state. However, the reason for requesting exemptions is the same: COVID. All states received waivers to eliminate these tests in spring 2020, and as we head into 2021, schools, districts, and states are considering their usefulness once again.
Advocates for the waivers say that the disruptions the pandemic has caused in schools–beginning last spring and continuing this fall–make it impossible to get a clear read on how much students have progressed academically. As one superintendent in Colorado put it, “Our assessments are designed for an education system that doesn’t exist [this year].”
If students haven’t been able to learn, the logic goes, how can we hold schools and teachers accountable?
Few can argue with that–which is why (presuming we can administer the tests safely for students, teachers, and support staff this spring), rather than issue blanket waivers to skip testing altogether, we should remove the “accountability” from these assessments and offer states more flexibility in how they are used.
For example, results should not be used to determine which schools or teachers are failing or trigger any kind of “turnaround” or takeover process. For example, it’s not fair for a low-income school district to have funding cut because students couldn’t access online classes because of connectivity or other access issues and scored lower on the tests as a result.
Unequal access to opportunities already exists in our educational system and has been exacerbated by the pandemic. We already know lower-income students are less likely to have access to high-quality instruction right now. Penalizing these students (or the schools and districts tasked with supporting them) for demonstrating this fact would be inequitable.
Nevertheless, the tests themselves must go on.
The tests can and should be used to collect and implement high-quality feedback on where students are compared to where we want them to be at this point in their academic careers. Teachers can use this feedback to support students’ success in the next grade and beyond in order to advance equity in our schools and respond to evidence of learning loss.
Why? Standardized tests are one of the only ways we have left to monitor students’ progress during this critical time when students are losing between seven and 14 months’ worth of learning. The National Assessment of Educational Progress tests, known as the “Nation’s Report Card,” were cancelled last spring and cancelled again this fall, leaving the country with little idea of how far behind typical progress students may have fallen.
That makes it all the more important for states to administer standardized tests this spring, in spite of the challenges. Without them, how can we know how far down the COVID slide students have slipped? Or which students need the most help, and in what areas they most need it?
We must make adjustments to the way the tests are given and used to make them more effective this year. Teachers need transparent and timely access to the test itself and students’ results in order to provide feedback to students, identify and interpret gaps, and adjust plans.
Historically, many standardized test providers have blocked access to the test content and have not provided results until many months after the tests were administered. Given the critical need for information on student progress, this is unacceptable.
In order for teachers to be able to use test information as productive feedback on their instruction (which research has shown can be a powerful instructional tool), they need to see student strengths and deficits clearly and quickly. Schools will need time and support to develop specific, actionable plans for using the data they receive.
Standardized tests can provide us with a critical window into new inequities and discrepancies in student achievement that are emerging in the COVID era. Of course, they don’t solve the problem, but they can offer directional insight for both instructional and governmental solutions that can.
The tests will likely uncover more significant issues of educational equity than we have seen in the past; we must be prepared to provide the funding and policy solutions to provide schools, teachers, and families with the tools to address those issues.
Standardized testing may not be the first priority for schools this spring, as they emerge from the tumult of last year. However, the potential cost of not administering these tests is considerable.