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A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Accountability Opinion

What Should School Accountability Look Like in a Time of COVID-19?

By Peter DeWitt — January 10, 2021 6 min read
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High Stakes Testing

COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on schools around the world. During the spring, UNESCO estimated that 86 percent of the world’s student population was involved in remote learning. To some, the word “learning” is, of course, a relative term. We know that remote learning is not like in-person learning, and now that we have all been in this situation for over nine months, data is being published on how harmful COVID has been to the learning experiences our children are engaged in, and the resulted learning loss, because of the pandemic.

There have been rallying cries about the amount of learning loss our students will suffer during this pandemic. When it comes to COVID learning loss, a recent NWEA study found:

  • In fall 2020, students in grades 3–8 performed similarly in reading to same-grade students in fall 2019, but about 5 percentile points to 10 percentile points lower in math.
  • In almost all grades, most students made some learning gains in both reading and math since the COVID-19 pandemic started.
  • This fall, students scored better than NWEA’s projections in reading, while math scores were in line with NWEA projections for grades 4–6 and slightly above NWEA projections in grades 7–8.
  • Some differences by racial/ethnic groups are emerging in the fall 2020 data, but it is too early to draw definitive conclusions from these initial results. Student groups especially vulnerable to the impacts of the pandemic were more likely to be missing from NWEA data.

Unfortunately, after we get through the term “learning loss,” the term “accountability” is not far behind. The question people ask is, “How will teachers and leaders be held accountable for student learning?” That is usually followed by a retort that “parents are not being held accountable for their child’s education,” and that “children are not taking accountability for their own learning.”

So, who is accountable, and what does proper accountability look like?

What Should Be Included Under the Accountability Umbrella?

January is typically the time that we all begin to focus a bit more on accountability because high-stakes-testing season is coming. Days of math tests followed by days of language arts exams or vice versa lie ahead for students. Last year, due to COVID, many states canceled their high-stakes tests. What about this year?

The National Center for Fair and Open Testing put out a national call to suspend high-stakes testing for 2021. The announcement on the Fair Test website in part reads: Forcing public schools to administer standardized exams to students after COVID-19 disruptions would produce invalid and unfair results while diverting resources from real educational needs, according to a national campaign to cancel Spring 2021 high-stakes tests that was launched today.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress was postponed until 2022, which you can read more about here. When it comes to high-stakes testing, it’s important to note that there is a difference between the high-stakes testing that happens in states and that of the test created by NAEP. Shepard (2016) writes, NAEP is an example of a large-scale testing program with broader and more open-ended representations of subject-matter learning than typical state and commercial achievement tests. It is also low stakes because accountability punishments are not tied to NAEP results.

What we know is that teachers and leaders do not wait for national and state tests to understand the progress their students are making. In fact, most times, teachers and leaders already understand the progress their students are making, and state and national tests typically do not give those teachers and leaders any further information, because those teachers have already been giving formative and summative assessments to students.

Are Formative and Summative Assessment Enough?

The question becomes, due to COVID, might we see the end of high-stakes testing with a replacement of formative and summative assessments? This is not a new question. In this ASCD article, Jim Popham (2008) writes, Once educators realized there was ample evidence that formative assessment really was an effective way to improve student learning, it wasn’t long before they began investigating the implications and asking the all too obvious follow-up question: If formative assessment could improve student learning in the classroom, couldn’t it also improve student test scores on external accountability tests? Considering that so many educators are now figuratively drowning in an ocean of accountability, it’s not surprising to see formative assessment cast in the role of life preserver.

The problem may come back to the word “accountability.” Is the use of formative and summative assessments enough to hold schools accountable? Many policymakers may not agree, but with Dr. Miguel Cardona likely to become the new U.S. secretary of education, we may see vast improvements when it comes to school accountability and the use of high-stakes testing.

Unfortunately, formative and summative evaluation isn’t off the hook, either. The reason being is that most ELL students are subjected to take an assessment that is not in their primary language, so the results are often skewed, and these marginalized students are then placed in groups that may not be appropriate. Where is the accountability in that?

Accountability is a complicated topic, and just because we may not want it through high-stakes testing doesn’t mean we need to escape it altogether. This will be a year that accountability is spoken about greatly, and perhaps it will be the year when it can be less of a complicated topic.

In the End

What we know is that learning loss is an issue, but how our students are assessed to understand their learning growth or regression is not a new topic. This has been a battle long before COVID came crashing into our lives. We have to consider the following questions when it comes to accountability, testing, assessment, and student learning:

  • What should students be learning?
  • What should student learning look like?
  • How much control should students have over their own learning?
  • Is there a difference between testing and assessment?
  • If we get rid of high-stakes testing, what is the alternative?
  • Is that alternative enough to make sure we are accountable for the learning growth of all our students?

These are questions I will explore on Wednesday, Jan. 13, at 2:00 p.m. Eastern on A Seat at the Table. My guests will be University of Colorado at Boulder Distinguished Professor Lorrie Shepard. Shepard is the past president of the American Educational Research Association and past president of the National Council on Measurement in Education.

Shepard will be joined by Angela Valenzuela, a professor in both the educational policy and planning program within the Department of Educational Administration at the University of Texas at Austin. Valenzuela served as co-editor of the Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, as well as the Anthropology and Education Quarterly.

Click here to register to watch the interview. This show will be available on demand after the live show airs.

Shepard LA. Testing and Assessment for the Good of Education: Contributions of AERA Presidents, 1915–2015. Educational Researcher. 2016;45(2):112-121.

Accountability, Testing, Formative Assessment, Summative Assessment, ASCD, AERA
The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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