As states begin to release results from their 2022 assessments, the U.S. Department of Education has emphasized that the scores must be used for accountability—but also that states should be cautious in how they interpret the results.
That’s the message conveyed in a “dear colleague” letter released earlier this month by U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, as the department restarts the federal accountability process that it paused at the start of the pandemic.
In spring 2020, as COVID forced schools to abruptly shut their doors, then-Secretary Betsy DeVos let states cancel the tests, which are required annually under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act. The next school year, Cardona’s administration required that states resume the tests, but waived participation rules and the accountability consequences.
Now, the whole system is grinding back into gear. Cardona’s letter underscores just how complicated that process could be—and why interpreting the effects of the pandemic on student achievement will be an ongoing challenge.
Student participation in the tests varied greatly during the 2020-21 school year. More students took the tests this past school year, but not every state reached pre-pandemic levels of participation. All the while, student enrollment in many states has dropped or shifted during the pandemic, meaning that the students who took a state’s test in 2019 likely aren’t the same students who took it last year.
All of this makes it hard to reliably evaluate how much progress students have actually made over the past year, assessment experts say.
Cardona’s letter acknowledges this. “Local context matters in the interpretation of achievement results,” it reads. And it urges states to avoid using results “punitively,” to ding educators on evaluations or prevent students from graduating.
The department offered states some flexibility on how they calculate results from the 2021-22, and more than half the states plus the District of Columbia have been approved for that flexibility. Even so, the score releases will inform how states identify schools for improvement, and the letter insists that the test results will provide important information that can help states target support.
“We know that some education stakeholders would have preferred the Department to waive assessment requirements over the past two years, but it was not the time to do so, just as now is not the time to lower standards for students,” the letter reads. “Used in the right way, data from high-quality systems of assessment can inform instruction and help school leaders drive resources to the schools and students that need them the most.”
The message here is, “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” said Derek Briggs, the director of the University of Colorado Boulder’s Center for Assessment Design Research and Evaluation.
These variations in local context provide a reason to be cautious, Briggs said. “That said, is it better to have no information rather than some information that has to be given some contextual flags?”
Experts advise careful interpretation, multiple sources of data
States and districts have offered up different answers to that question.
In Denver, for example, district officials have said that low student participation rates and the state’s modified testing schedule mean that the data are “no way an accurate representation of an entire student body at most of our schools.”
“In the past, many considered [school rating] data as a tool to compare schools’ performance to other schools, districts and statewide results. Some also used it as a way to find a school’s strengths and identify areas for improvement. We do not believe that the 2022 [school rating] data should be used in that way,” Denver’s Superintendent Alex Marrero wrote in a letter published Sept. 9.
On the other hand, some states—including Mississippi, Tennessee, and Texas—have reported increases in scores from spring 2021 to 2022, in some cases reaching or exceeding prepandemic levels. In those states, education officials have claimed that the gains are evidence of academic recovery.
Still others have postponed releasing their results. California has delayed its public reporting process, despite telling districts that they can share the data on their own, the news site EdSource reported this week.
In general, though, states should be cautious when making comparisons between 2021 and 2022 results, assessment experts say.
It’s possible to do, but states need to report the data in ways that ensure they’re comparing apples to apples, said Scott Marion, the executive director of the Center for Assessment, a technical assistance group.
That means making clear how many students were enrolled at both timepoints, and what percentage of those students participated in testing. The question for states, he said, is: “How confident are you in your ability to put the 2022 scores on the same scale as 2019, or 2021? And what evidence do you have that worked as intended?”
It’s also important for systems to be able to track how the same students are progressing over time, said Briggs. This year’s 3rd graders might score higher than last year’s, but that could be because less of their formal education was disrupted by the pandemic—it doesn’t necessarily mean that schools are helping students regain lost ground, he said.
Experts also stressed the importance of triangulating multiple sources to get a fuller picture. For example, state-level results from the reading and math National Assessment of Educational Progress will be released later this fall, and could provide an “interesting check” on state test data, Briggs said.
It’s still too early to know whether some states that reported strong test results this year have started an upward trend, or “if it’s just a blip,” said Marianne Perie, the director of assessment research and innovation at WestEd, a research and consulting group.
For now, she emphasized the importance of continuing to collect data, including on where pandemic funding is going, and what kind of impact it has. It might not always show up in test scores, she added.
Hiring bus drivers, for example, might not have a direct effect on student achievement, “but that doesn’t mean it’s not a good place to put the money.”
A version of this article appeared in the October 12, 2022 edition of Education Week as Don’t Use State Tests ‘Punitively,’ Ed. Secretary Cardona Warns