School & District Management

Coronavirus Throws Spring Testing Into Disarray

By Catherine Gewertz — March 16, 2020 5 min read
Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker announced last week that all schools in Massachusetts will close to stem the spread of the coronavirus. More than 20 states have closed schools statewide, putting spring testing into doubt.

Coronavirus, already upending the schooling of millions of U.S. students, is poised to wreak widespread havoc on spring testing, a disruption that will affect dozens of important decisions, from teacher evaluation and 3rd grade promotion to the way schools measure and report their progress to the public. The virus has also thrown college-admissions testing into disarray in hundreds of cities.

Required by federal law, states’ annual assessments in math and English/language arts—and periodic testing in science—typically take place between March and May. But with schools closing for several weeks—or indefinitely—those plans are suddenly in question.

States are scrambling to figure out what to do. Assessment officials are calling one another, and organizations that advise them on testing, to think through their options.

“We’re getting hammered” with calls from states about how to handle testing in the wake of school closures, said Chris Domaleski, the associate director of the Center for Assessment, which advises and supports states on their assessment programs. “They’re wrestling with some very tough choices.”

See Also: Coronavirus and Schools

Calls from states about testing were rolling in to the Council of Chief State School Officers at the rate of one per hour last Friday, officials there said. “Before they jump in and do something, states want to know what other states are doing,” said Scott Norton, CCSSO’s deputy executive director of programs.

Normally, states are not permitted to cancel statewide summative testing, since it’s required by federal law. But on March 12, the U.S. Department of Education said it would consider one-year waivers of that requirement—and the requirement that states test 95 percent of their students—given the “extraordinary circumstances” of the coronavirus.

That could open up an important option for states. Within hours, many states were discussing the possibility of seeking a waiver so they could skip testing.

Toni Konz Tatman, a spokeswoman for the Kentucky Department of Education, said the state “will explore the use of all of the federal waivers made available” by the U.S. Department of Education, since the governor there decided to halt in-person classes starting March 16.

In a video announcement, Ohio State Superintendent Paolo DeMaria said that the state was “still figuring out” what to do about testing, and was considering all its options, including applying for a waiver, but for the time being, it planned to extend the spring testing window by three weeks.

Washington state decided to cancel its tests, since schools statewide will be shuttered for at least six weeks, said education department spokeswoman Katy Payne.

“It is important to us that any time in school during the rest of the school year be spent on instructional time, rather than testing,” she said in an email. The state is considering the possibility of a waiver, and will seek one if necessary. States are required to seek federal permission to be excused from federal testing requirements.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced Monday that he would cancel the state’s STAAR tests, which were to begin in April. Georgia announced later in the day that it would suspend its state testing until further notice, and South Carolina said it’s seeking a federal waiver to suspend testing as well. Nebraska delayed state tests that were scheduled to start this week.

Difficult Questions

California is not planning to cancel its Smarter Balanced tests, education department spokesman Scott Roark said. But districts may choose to move them later into the spring, since their allowable testing window lasts until July 15.

Whether states proceed with their tests or win waivers to skip them, though, they’ll be grappling with layers of difficult questions that will echo into 2021, experts said. Each scenario they might choose comes with a unique set of problems.

Even if schools reopen after a month of a statewide closure, there could be enough time to administer tests, but “many would argue it would not be fair” to test students on their knowledge when they’ve missed so much instruction, said Scott Marion, the executive director of the Center for Assessment.

Many states and districts plan to move to online learning, but serious questions remain about how effective it will be, and how much children will learn. A recent survey by EdWeek found that 4 in 10 school systems are not prepared to offer online learning to all students.

States that skip testing entirely will face the difficult task of how to calculate—and report to the public and federal officials—growth in student achievement, since they won’t be able to compare 2021 to 2020, Domaleski said. They’ll also be missing key data on which decisions are made, from big-picture instructional shifts to students’ high school graduation.

Even thornier questions will arise in states where only some schools or districts shut down, experts said. If tests are administered statewide once all schools reopen, some children will be sitting down to exams with far more instructional hours under their belts than others, said Domaleski.

Even when no schools shut down, the high absenteeism rate and other changes in school routines related to the coronavirus could distort test results, Norton said. “Does it get to be so disruptive that the results aren’t reliable?” he asked.

These questions will have to be resolved by states, likely through policy changes, Norton said. For instance, a state that relies on 3rd grade reading scores for decisions about 4th grade promotion, or uses test scores in teacher evaluations, might have to suspend those practices temporarily.

College-Admissions Testing

The impact of the coronavirus is being felt in college-admissions testing, too.

The College Board cancelled the March 14 SAT at 1,761 testing centers in the U.S. It had scheduled March 28 as a makeup date, but it later nixed that too. Students may reschedule or request refunds. The College Board cancelled its May 2 SAT test date nationwide, saying it will schedule more dates in the future. With Advanced Placement tests looming in May, the College Board also announced that it is finalizing a “streamlined” version of the college-credit exam that students can take at home.

By Friday, ACT had cancelled its April 4 exam at 99 test centers. But by Monday morning, it cancelled the exam date altogether, and was notifying students that they could take the test on its June 13 date instead.

The SAT and ACT are also used for accountability by many states, so they are now involved in states’ decisions to continue or suspend statewide testing.

Twenty-five states currently use the ACT college-entrance exam in their accountability systems as a college-readiness indicator. Seven of those also use it for their statewide achievement test. ACT spokesman Ed Colby said some states have already concluded testing, but the company is working with the others as they figure out whether to make any changes in their testing schedules.

Ten states use the SAT for their statewide achievement test, but the College Board referred a question about any changes in test schedule to the states themselves.

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