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Assessment

How Two Years of Pandemic Disruption Could Shake Up the Debate Over Standardized Testing

By Evie Blad — March 05, 2021 9 min read
Image of a student at a desk.

The week the U.S. Department of Education told states it wouldn’t issue blanket waivers from mandated annual assessments, the creators of a national guide instructing parents on how to opt their children out of the standardized tests reported a spike in web traffic to the site.

“Parents are hopping mad,” said Bob Schaeffer, the interim executive director of FairTest, an organization that promotes testing opt outs and created the guide. “If schools don’t cancel the tests, parents will.”

Advocates for testing — including civil rights organizations, a vocal group of lawmakers, and some educational leaders concerned about equity —say such suggestions may be overblown. But, after states cancelled tests entirely in 2020, some of those same advocates fear that two consecutive years of disruption in state testing—be it through opt outs, modifications, or complete cancellations — could amount to the country taking its foot off the gas in its commitment to broad assessments.

“What I fear is we just don’t know enough right now,” said Cheryl Oldham, vice president of education policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has advocated for federal testing mandates. “We just won’t know the implications of this year for a while.”

Although President Joe Biden criticized high-stakes testing as a candidate, one of his Education Department’s first acts was to leave the tests in place, even as many testing opponents argued that an unprecedented year of disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic gave a good reason to cancel them.

In addition to concerns about the reliability of scores for tests given during the pandemic, schools will face a host of logistical challenges, like deciding how to test remote learners, finding off-site space that allows for greater social distancing, and finding adults to supervise testing at a time when staffing is already a challenge.

Testing supporters were heartened when the Education Department said in its Feb. 22 guidance that states must conduct tests this year. But the guidance provides a lot of wiggle room, allowing states to bypass requirements that they use the scores to rate schools, to delay when they are administered, and to forgo the requirement that 95 percent of students participate, a change that could open the door for more opt outs.

States are still sketching out their response to the department’s directive. While some have committed to conducting full assessments in person, others have said they will need to make changes to address the realities of the pandemic.

Those changes could leave a big hole in the data states use to track schools’ performance over time and become talking points in debates about the future of testing, those testing supporters have said.

And some critics of testing hope they are right.

An alliance in support of assessment

Congress reaffirmed its commitment to test-based accountability when it passed the Every Student Succeeds Act in 2015 after years of debate. The federal education law maintained many of the testing mandates that were the hallmarks of its predecessor, the No Child Left Behind Act.

Under ESSA, states have to test students in reading and math in grades 3-8 and once in high school. They also have to break down the resulting test scores to track results for targeted populations, like English-language learners, various racial groups, and students from low-income families.

Critics of NCLB had argued that it led schools to place too much emphasis on tests and to use their results in punitive ways. Under ESSA, lawmakers aimed to address those concerns by giving states more flexibility in how scores are used and by allowing them to limit the amount of time schools spend testing. They also created a program to pilot new innovative assessments.

But an alliance that included civil rights groups, business organizations, and prominent congressional Democrats successfully pushed for Congress to reject more-dramatic changes to testing mandates when it passed ESSA.

Broad annual data are necessary to ensure schools are serving all students adequately, they insisted. And standardized tests offer consistency that other forms of feedback, like teacher observations and classroom assignments, may lack, they said.

I just think we have a moral responsibility to understand how all of our students are doing, where we are falling short...

And, as the Biden administration considered how to handle testing this year, many of those groups and lawmakers revived the same arguments. They insisted that, after fits and starts of in-person instruction and a full-year of remote learning in some areas, many parents will find value in gauging what subjects their children mastered and where they may need more help. And the data may be necessary to help direct federal aid, including an additional $128 billion in K-12 relief, much of it targeted to responding to the effects of interrupted learning time, they’ve said.

“I just think we have a moral responsibility to understand how all of our students are doing, where we are falling short, and we have to use data to make sure that we are doing the right thing and sending the dollars to where they are needed the most,” U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat and chairwoman of the Senate education committee, told Education Week in December. “That’s called education equity.”

But in a sign of splits within the Democratic Party about education policy, newer members of Congress, like Rep. Jahana Hayes of Connecticut and Rep. Jamaal Bowman of New York, both former educators, have said it doesn’t make sense to conduct tests this year.

Hayes, asked in late February if she thought the Biden administration’s decision not to grant blanket waivers from standardized tests undercut its other efforts to assist schools, spoke extensively about how tests wouldn’t help students or educators, and wouldn’t capture the real impact of COVID-19.

Hayes shares that viewpoint with national teachers’ unions and some Republicans. They include Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, the ranking member of the Senate education committee, who called upon U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona to cancel the tests during Cardona’s confirmation hearing.

How much flexibility should there be from testing requirements?

As states sketch out their responses to the federal directive, it remains unclear exactly how much flexibility the Education Department will allow.

While some states have committed to carrying on with testing plans, leaders in some places, including the District of Columbia, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, have said they will push forward with requests to cancel the tests entirely.

Groups that support test-based accountability have acknowledged the unusual circumstances created by the health crisis, but they’ve also urged states to do as much as is practical to conduct assessments.

“In our minds, the right thing is you’ve got to make every effort to test as many kids as possible,” said Oldham, of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “In this year, of all years. Are you kidding me? This is a time when we absolutely have to know.”

Testing experts like Andrew Ho, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, have said there are ways to present this year’s test scores that would add helpful context for the public.

But testing critics have organized campaigns to urge states to push for as much flexibility as possible, including full waivers. They’ve also called on states to pause state-level accountability efforts, like use of reading test scores to determine if students should be promoted beyond the 3rd grade.

Opt-out advocates have urged mass disruption of state tests over the last decade, citing concerns about how high-stakes tests are conducted and how their scores are used to rate schools and educators. And they’ve reported a fresh surge of concern this year about testing during the pandemic.

It’s unclear how many students will sit out this year. In a February parent poll conducted by the National PTA, 52 percent of respondents said they favored end-of-year testing, and 60 percent said they are worried their child is behind and want more information on where their child is academically.

But signs point to pockets of opt-out interest in some areas. And, if enough students sit out, it could amount to a de facto test cancellation, especially if the population of students who do participate doesn’t mirror the demographics of the student body as a whole, some testing experts have warned.

New York City’s departing Chancellor Richard Carranza encouraged parents to consider opt outs at a Feb. 25 news conference, and said the school system would make them aware of their rights.

“We do not want to impose additional trauma on students that have already been traumatized,” said Carranza, who has since announced plans to resign at the end of March.

And, if new converts to the opt-out movement engage with activist organizations and join their email lists, they may play a more active role in debates over testing in the future, said Oren Pizmony-Levy, a professor of international and comparative education at Columbia University who has studied the opt-out movement.

“Once you change a habit, once you challenge something that is taken for granted, you all of a sudden start to question this behavior,” he said.

Congress has not expressed any appetite to reauthorize ESSA or to rethink its testing requirements in the near term, but Pizmony-Levy cites past research that found that people who engage with opt-out movements are more likely to contact their congressional representatives when conversations about education policy occur.

Is there a middle path in the testing debate?

Some veterans of the testing debate suggest that two years of disruption will lead parents, policymakers, and educators to tackle exactly what standardized state assessments should look like and how they are used.

“If we don’t [take] this year as an opportunity to think about how we want to make our system better, we really are missing the boat on this one,” said Chris Minnich, the CEO of NWEA, a nonprofit organization that helps develop assessments. Minnich was also the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers when ESSA was enacted.

In response to the federal guidance, some states have suggested they will delay testing until the fall. Officials in New Mexico have requested permission to test a representative sample of students this year, an idea that has been floated in broader policy discussions in the past. In South Carolina, officials have asked to use formative assessments conducted throughout the school year in place of a year-end, summative test.

That’s an idea NWEA has promoted, working with states like Georgia through ESSA’s innovative assessment pilot. But reverse engineering such an approach—by deciding on the back end to use those incremental tests for year-end results—could be imperfect, Minnich said.

Some critics of what Minnich calls “through-year assessments” say formative and summative assessments serve distinct purposes that should not be mingled. But they acknowledge that states’ creative efforts this year may provide talking points for future discussions.

“It introduces the next chapter in an ongoing discussion of the proper type of assessment, the proper function of assessment, and ultimately how that benefits students,” said David DeSchryver, the senior vice president of Whiteboard Advisors, an education consulting firm. “How does that information support equitable educational opportunities?”

A version of this article appeared in the March 10, 2021 edition of Education Week as Pandemic Revives Debates on High-Stakes Tests

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