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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Assessment Opinion

Five Intuitions to Guide Assessment in 2021 and After

By Rick Hess — February 08, 2021 3 min read

We’re now entering the 12th month of the pandemic, making it nearly a year since COVID-19 first shut down schools across the land. Amid all the ensuing disruption, the question of testing has continued to raise its vexing head. Last spring, Uncle Sam waived the annual testing required by the Every Student Succeeds Act. This year, the gold-standard National Assessment of Educational Progress has already been pushed back to 2022 due to COVID-19.

Now, as we near the annual testing season, there’s a rising debate about whether spring 2021 testing would provide an essential window into how schools are faring or an unnecessary distraction sure to yield unreliable data. Over at Education Next, there’s a terrific forum on this question, with Scott Marion, executive director of the Center for Assessment, and Lorrie Shepard, distinguished professor of education at CU Boulder, arguing against “testing as usual,” while Jessica Baghian, former assistant state education chief for Louisiana, urges “staying the course” on statewide assessment. (Full disclosure: I’m an executive editor at Ed Next.) It’s well worth the read.

Meanwhile, beyond the question of whether to test, there’s also the equally crucial question of how we should approach testing. On that score, Fordham Institute’s Mike Petrilli and I have sketched five guiding principles to keep in mind as we approach assessment in 2021 and beyond. They are:

First, testing has to be about helping teachers teach and learners learn. The emphasis during the No Child Left Behind era was on tests that would allow policymakers to judge school performance. Our state tests, which owe so much to NCLB’s commitment to accountability and transparency, have real value. But they frequently provide results long after school ends and, in any event, don’t give teachers or parents information intended to aid individual learners. As we look to getting tens of millions of kids back to school and diagnosing where they are and what they need, there has to be a premium on assessments that are timely, agile, and useful for teaching and learning.

Second, don’t give up on reading, writing, and math tests. We might not need to test every kid every year, and the ‘3 Rs’ are surely not all that matter when it comes to education. But regular assessments of these basic skills provide important checks on what’s happening in schools, give us a sense of which schools or systems are doing especially well or poorly, and help us identify instructional practices that work. And let there be no doubt: Mastering literacy and numeracy is essential for every young American in the 21st century.

Third, we need good measures of school quality and student success that extend beyond reading, writing, and math scores. It’s been five years since the federal Every Student Succeeds Act opened the door for states to use new metrics to evaluate schools, yet the response has been anemic. Beyond some efforts to use absenteeism, student and parent surveys, and college-readiness indices, little has emerged. We’ve seen little movement on gauging civics education, world-language mastery, or other academic dimensions. Philanthropists, researchers, and public officials have much work to do when it comes to pioneering a richer, more robust array of metrics.

Fourth, accountability alone doesn’t make schools better. Don’t get us wrong—we’re not arguing against the value of assessing student learning and using those results to monitor school outcomes. But accountability systems which place too much weight on reading and math scores have proven to be a perilous path to system change—doing more to promote bureaucracy and stymie educators than serve students. We need to empower educators to do their best work and invest in developing the know-how that supports powerful learning. Sensible accountability is a part of that, but only a part.

Finally, parental choice is a vital form of accountability, too. Most efforts to intervene in chronically low-performing schools don’t work, and few states have the political will to shutter ineffective schools, even if that would be best for their students. A smarter approach is to let parents vote with their feet and make sure that kids stuck in bad schools get better options. That’s both the right thing to do and a more plausible way to put bad schools out of their misery.

As many have noted, the dislocations of COVID-19 have created an opportunity to rethink familiar assumptions and habits. Testing and accountability should be no exception.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up 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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