Accountability Explainer

Will There Be Standardized Tests This Year? 8 Questions Answered

By Andrew Ujifusa & Sarah Schwartz — February 09, 2021 12 min read
Students testing.

With spring around the corner and end-of-year state testing season looming, there’s still uncertainty about what standardized assessments will actually look like this year—or whether schools will give them at all.

In the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic last spring, the U.S. Department of Education approved requests from all 50 states to be excused from the standardized testing required by federal law. In fall 2020, then-Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said that the Education Department wouldn’t be granting these waivers again, but with the change in administration, the decision will be up to President Joe Biden’s nominee for education secretary, Miguel Cardona.

Proponents of giving the exams this year argue that the data are necessary to quantify student learning loss during the pandemic and to help target support to the kids who need it. But others say that testing adds another stressor to an already difficult year and presents insurmountable logistical challenges—safety risks for testing in person, and validity issues testing remotely.

Amid these debates, educators planning for testing windows this year have practical questions: Will the exams happen? If so what will they look like, and how will the results be used? Education Week answers some of the most-pressing questions below.

1. Can the secretary of education cancel spring tests?

Not exactly. States can ask for waivers from administering federally mandated state assessments, and Cardona—assuming he is confirmed as education secretary—can grant those waivers. But Cardona won’t have the power to unilaterally cancel those tests. As Terra Wallin, a former U.S. Department of Education staffer now with the Education Trust, put it, “Ultimately the power rests with states who administer the assessments and choose which assessments to administer.”

The clearest evidence of this are the decisions by Arkansas and Texas, for example, to move ahead with spring testing in some form, while Michigan and New York have said they are seeking waivers from the department so they can cancel.

When states canceled these tests nearly a year ago, DeVos did not simply tell states not to administer them. But she speedily approved applications from states for waivers to do so.

There’s a big caveat here: Under the Every Student Succeeds Act, the main federal K-12 law, states that get the green light to cancel exams aren’t totally off the hook when it comes to monitoring how students and schools are doing. One important condition of getting a waiver is that states must still demonstrate how they’ll be transparent about student performance in some way. In the context of the pandemic, for example, states seeking waivers could say they’ll track and report data about things like the amount of in-person instruction. They’re also supposed to track and report such data by student subgroups, such as students of color and English-language learners.

However, Cardona could not attach any explicit legal conditions of his own to any testing waivers he grants.

It’s possible for the federal government to provide some leeway on testing requirements without giving blanket, black-and-white answers. ESSA also requires states to administer science exams at certain grade levels, although they typically get less attention than federally required English/language arts and math exams. Granting waivers from those science tests would be more another way of offering states some flexibility.

2. Is it possible to give the tests remotely? Would the results be valid?

Giving spring tests remotely isn’t something that most states are considering right now, said Scott Marion, the executive director of the Center for Assessment, an organization that consults states and districts on testing issues. First, there are the practical hurdles: Not every student would have the devices or internet bandwidth that they would need to take the test from home.

Remote exams also introduce security concerns. Parents might help younger kids when they’re stuck on a tricky problem; older students could Google answers or text their friends. Some colleges and universities have tried to address these issues with remote proctoring software, which often involves recording students while they take tests. But this solution would run afoul of privacy rules for K-12 students in many states, Marion said.

Bethany Glass, a 1st grade teacher in Cincinnati, said she experienced families intervening this fall during the MAP test, a benchmark test developed by the assessment provider NWEA and used in school districts across the country. It wasn’t that parents were trying to cheat, she said, but rather, “you see your kid struggling with something, you jump in and you help.” Still, it changed her students’ outcomes—some of her 1st graders, progressing through the adaptive test with their parents’ aid, started getting served pre-algebra questions.

Testing context matters, Marion said, and all these environmental factors affect the comparability of the scores—whether in-person tests and remote tests are equivalent measures of what students know and can do. We can’t assume that they are, he said.

3. If I’m teaching remotely, or some of my students are remote, will they have to come into the building for testing?

“If you’re just bringing kids in for testing, that’s a tough moral dilemma for district leaders—to say it’s safe for you to be in here for testing and not for learning,” Marion said.

Cardona raised this concern in his Senate confirmation hearing: “If the conditions under COVID-19 prevent a student from being in school in person, I don’t think we need to be bringing students in just to test them,” he said.

But because of the logistical barriers to remote exams, it’s most likely that any testing that does occur will happen in person, said Andrew Buher, the founder and co-managing director at Opportunity Labs, an education consulting group. In Texas, for example, districts are required to offer in-person learning, but some parents have chosen to keep their kids home for remote learning. Texas has already announced that these remote students will be expected to come into buildings for the state’s STAAR test.

4. What will in-person testing look like this year? How can we make it safe for students and teachers?

Some states may offer flexibility here, Buher said. In Texas, districts are allowed to set up alternative testing sites that support social distancing, like performing arts centers or hotels, and schools can set staggered schedules so students learn remotely when they’re not testing.

Some states are also expanding their testing windows, Marion said.

Georgia is among them, and the state also announced other options for districts. They include the ability to offer evening hours for testing, which could allow schools to place fewer students in each session or bring in remote groups at different times than in-person cohorts, said Allison Timberlake, the state’s deputy superintendent for assessment and accountability. Two districts have already used this option for English-language learner testing this year.

On testing days, districts can turn to the same kinds of safety precautions schools have used all year—mask-wearing, social distancing, grouping students into cohorts, and frequent handwashing, said Mario Ramirez, a managing director of Opportunity Labs, who was the acting director for pandemic and emerging threats in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services during the Ebola epidemic.

This would also be a good time to make use of any COVID-19 testing capability that districts have, Ramirez added: Students who are coming back into the building just for exams could take an antigen test, which looks for proteins in the virus, or a PCR test, which detects the virus’ genetic material, before doing so. If students have already been learning in person, districts could use pooled testing—combining multiple samples to test as a batch, which saves resources—to monitor cohorts or classes.

Regardless of the precautions districts take, Timberlake said, some students’ families may not feel comfortable sending them into buildings. For this reason, nearly eliminating the academic consequences of testing for Georgia students—reducing the tests’ contribution to final grades to 0.01 percent—went hand in hand with addressing safety concerns.

5. Is it possible for the federal government to use state standardized tests just for data collection purposes, and decide that no schools, teachers, or students will be graded or penalized based on the results?

The federal government does not have the power to tell states how they can or cannot use state tests to rate, punish, or make decisions about students or teachers. ESSA explicitly states, for example, that the Education Department does not have power over how teacher evaluations work. And states decide on their own whether to use certain exams as part of things like graduation requirements for students.

The department does have the power to waive ESSA’s requirement that states use test scores to meaningfully differentiate schools and districts. Last spring, the federal government offered waivers to states allowing them not to add or remove schools to the list of those needing improvement for the 2020-21 school year. If states do administer assessments this spring, they could decide to use them to rate schools and districts.

Whether there’s much appetite in states to use tests for such accountability purposes remains to be seen. In fact, some states have already moved to downplay or minimize the role of standardized tests for accountability purposes. Many states could decide it would be better to use test scores to try to identify which students need more support and resources, and that schools shouldn’t have to worry about being labeled as needing some kind of improvement based on this year’s tests results.

6. My state has decided this year not to use test scores in any ways that could penalize students, teachers, or schools for poor results. But will a school’s scores still become public? And will administrators still know individual students’ scores and teachers’ class results?

ESSA requires public reporting of results on state exams, even if the secretary waives accountability requirements attached to those tests. So, for example, just because states might get accountability waivers doesn’t mean there wouldn’t be any data about individual school performance. The law also requires test scores to be broken down by performance of different student subgroups, such as students in special education and students from low-income households. That reporting requirement extends to making scores available to educators, including administrators. The information is supposed to help educators make better decisions about directing resources to those who need them most for different areas of instruction.

“Statewide summative assessments must produce detailed score reports on individual students” under ESSA, said Anne Hyslop, who works at the Alliance for Excellent Education. In practice, that’s so educators can get more-detailed information about individual students’ performance on different sections of the tests. That information about individual students, however, is only supposed to be shared with educators and parents, not with to the general public.

It might be possible forschools to get waivers or some kind of flexibility when it comes to this requirement about detailed score reports for individual students. However, Hyslop said to her knowledge such waivers have never been granted during normal administration of these tests. In general, the expectation is that states will have to publish some sort of information about how students are doing. However, the federal government does not have the power to say that states must or must not report test results on a teacher-by-teacher basis.

7. I’ve heard the argument that we need data from state tests to quantify learning loss during the pandemic. How will that data be used to do this? Will schools get additional help or resources if their students are behind?

Federally mandated tests are not specifically designed to get a precise measurement of “learning loss” or important details about what teachers need to do to move students ahead, especially during a major disruption like the pandemic. As Wallin put it, “These tests alone are not going to answer that question in a full way.” Diagnostic or formative exams that teachers administer to students, which are different than the ESSA-mandated tests given statewide, have the potential to reveal more information about this. You can read more about them here.

However, Hyslop noted, state exams can reveal important patterns with potential consequences for students’ academic progress, including the extent to which different students take them to begin with. If many Latino students, for example, aren’t taking the state assessment at all during the pandemic, she said, “That could be a red flag.”

8. Is it really fair to give standardized tests when this year has been far from standardized?

The answer to this question will vary depending on how people view the role of tests.

In theory, state tests are supposed to identify students with the greatest academic needs so that more resources and support can be directed to them. In fact, that’s supposed to be one of their most important functions, Hyslop said. Yet Wallin also noted that these tests can feel punitive precisely because schools and districts don’t necessarily receive additional funding and resources even after test scores reveal their needs for more support.

Some, like Josh Starr of PDK International, have argued that policymakers and educators should proceed on the assumption that the pandemic has hit socioeconomically disadvantaged and underserved students especially hard, and that they should be totally committed to getting these students more money and support without waiting for (or needing) state tests to indicate there’s a problem. As Daniel Koretz of the Harvard Graduate School of Education told us late last year: “I wouldn’t want to see what little instruction we’re able to give kids now consumed by test prep.” In Cardona’s confirmation hearing, Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., said he didn’t think the tests and accompanying evaluation system were the right thing for schools to be worrying about.

Yet others believe federally mandated tests have only become more important during the pandemic. That’s basically the position of the leaders of the education committees in Congress, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va. Wallin noted that the tests provide a window into student performance and needs across districts and states that other measures simply don’t. While the shift to remote learning for many students is far from standard, she said, the disparities concerning resources and access to quality learning the pandemic has exacerbated are all too standard for many students. Both she and Hyslop said that state assessments should be considered one tool among many to help educators, parents, and students during the pandemic.

“It’s critically important that we know how states are doing, and that includes how they’re doing academically,” Hyslop said. “We should be thoughtful about how the assessments are used.”

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