The head of the U.S. Department of Education’s statistical wing has officially postponed the 2021 administration of the Nation’s Report Card due to surging COVID-19 rates across the country, meaning it could be until the following year before the agency administers its next reading and math exams and releases the results.
The delay means that the nation will lose what might have been the only opportunity to gather comparable state-by-state information on the extent of learning loss in those two subjects, after months of school closures and other disruptions.
Officially known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the test, given to representative samples of students in all 50 states, was scheduled to begin in early 2021. The venerable exam has gone forward, rain or shine, since the 1970s. But as it has with so many other aspects of schooling, the pandemic has wreaked havoc on the NAEP testing schedule.
Federal officials pointed to two main reasons for postponing NAEP. One was that the patchwork quilt of schools offering in-person, hybrid, or all-remote learning threatened to skew the sample of students as well as the results so seriously the data might not have been useable. (Earlier in the year, officials estimated that trying to account for all those issues would have added $50 million to the exam’s price tag.)
“Too many students are receiving their education through distance learning or are physically attending schools in locations where outside visitors to the schools are being kept at a minimum due to COVID levels,” said James Woodworth, the commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, in a statement. “The change in operations and lack of access to students to be assessed means that NAEP will not be able to produce estimates of what students know and can do that would be comparable to either past or future national or state estimates.”
The other reason was to ensure safety of both testing proctors and the students who sit the exams, which are given on shared laptops and other equipment.
“I was obviously concerned about sending outsiders into schools and possibly increasing the risk of COVID transmission,” Woodworth said.
Other education groups, while disappointed, felt the agency made the right call.
“I recognize this was not an easy decision, but I believe it is the right one based on what we know today about this virus and its impact on schools,” said Carissa Moffat Miller, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, which represents the 50 state superintendents.
A panel had recommended moving forward. Then the surge came.
Federal officials had earlier acknowledged potential problems and costs of moving forward and were trying to balance that against NAEP’s important role as a national yardstick.
At a July 31 meeting, the panel that sets policy for NAEP approved a resolution advising the NCES to move forward with preparations for a 2021 math and reading assessment unless that agency determined that accurate reporting would not be possible.
Then the surge came, and with it, more and more schools began moving back into all-remote learning. NCES officials noted that, in many states, the sample of students available to take the exam in person—or located in areas with lower COVID-19 new-case rates—was far too small to produce results.
Even had the NCES moved forward, some data would likely not have been possible to report. NAGB officials had noted that it would not have been possible to produce data for the scores of urban districts who participate in a program that produces comparable district-level results. And the data would have been limited for some states and for certain subgroups of students.
COVID-19 has fractured the testing landscape.
NAEP is hardly the pandemic’s only testing casualty. Although the Education Department under U.S. Secretary Betsy DeVos has so far refused to issue waivers from the annual-testing requirements in federal education law, many other states are either canceling their own state-required exams or lessening the consequences that flow from them, such as school ratings or course fulfillment requirements.
In a letter to education leaders in Congress dated the day before the NCES announcement, DeVos continued to push for those state-level exams.
“While the data would have been helpful, the much more valuable and actionable measures of learning loss will be the annual assessments required of states by the Every Student Succeeds Act. I strongly believe that states should implement their own assessments on schedule in spring 2021, given that they do not face the same constraints as NAEP and have ample time to plan for successful test administration tailored to their unique circumstances,” she wrote. “This is an issue of bipartisan consensus, and one I hope continues to rise above politics.”
But only NAEP produces truly comparable, state-to-state results. States’ own exams will supply some information, but those tests measure different content standards across states, and they are set at differing levels of difficulty.
And while the pandemic has raged for months, the national picture of learning loss is still fuzzy and incomplete. Emerging data from some commonly administered “benchmark” exams—given by districts several times a year to measure progress trends—do suggest declines in student learning trajectories and indicate more pronounced problems in mathematics than in reading, but the breakdown by different states or regions remains unclear.
Another problem that no state or district has seemingly cracked yet is comparability of results for students attending in-person versus remote or hybrid learning.
Academic literature on psychometrics—the science of measurement—already points to a “mode” effect that affects scores based on whether an exam is taken digitally or in paper-and-pencil format. The difference between in-person and remote learning seems likely to exacerbate that effect. Remote monitoring of students as they take tests—commonly used in higher education—raises a host of privacy and other concerns at the K-12 level.
All of that has some testing experts seriously doubting whether states can produce comparable results across all their students in the spring.