Standardized Testing and COVID-19: 4 Questions Answered

By Sarah D. Sparks — July 09, 2020 8 min read
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Big state and national tests always require finely tuned coordination among researchers and schools. During the pandemic, large-scale assessments could become a complicated mess—if they can be pulled off at all.

Large-scale tests—from the Nation’s Report Card to state accountability exams—face an uphill climb next year, experts say, amid concerns that administering them could expose staff and students to a higher risk of coronavirus and prove difficult to do consistently among the shifting school set-ups expected next year.

“I have a teacher in the hospital right now who is fighting for her life from COVID-19,” said Dana Boyd, a member of the governing board for the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, and the principal of East Point Elementary School in El Paso, Texas. Boyd was one of the members at a recent meeting calling for the tests to be pushed back from their planned 2021 administration. “Before this hit home I would’ve said, yes, let’s do this. … [But] it’s bigger than data.”

Collection: Coronavirus and Schools

The added risk, coupled with ongoing uncertainties about what schools will look like next year, is prompting states to consider another year without testing and may lead the federal government to delay the main National Assessment of Educational Progress in reading and math for the first time ever.

“I wouldn’t want to be blind for four years from 2019 to 2023, in one of the most critical and volatile periods in American educational history,” said Andrew Ho, Harvard University education economist and another member of the National Assessment Governing Board, which supervises the NAEP, also known as the Nation’s Report Card.

But Michael Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, said that 21 out of the 27 superintendents of the big-city districts that participate in the Trial Urban District Assessment, a smaller administration of NAEP, favor pushing the large federal assessments back by at least a year.

“And no one had a better idea,” Casserly said.

What are the infection risks for a large assessment?

Testing environments generally can lend themselves to social distancing, of course; the same spacing that would reduce virus transmission would also deter cheating, for example. Still, at a time when schools are trying as much as possible to limit the number of students in school at a time, and keep the students who do attend in stable clusters, the traditional format of large standardized tests can be a challenge.

We cannot allow this public health crisis to become a generational education crisis."

For example, to administer the 2021 NAEP in math and reading in grades 4 and 8, the National Center for Education Statistics typically sends out 3,000 proctors to roughly 13,000 schools nationwide over the course of a couple of months. Because each student takes only a subset of the NAEP’s questions, these proctors bring 22,000 tablet computers preloaded with the selected questions for each student.

Health and safety requirements differ from state to state and at times district to district, but at a minimum the proctors will need additional training and equipment to safely supervise the tests and clean equipment between testing sessions. Casserly said many school districts have also limited outside access to school buildings and are requiring various kinds of health or temperature screenings for entry.

“Test administrators often move from school to school in the same test, presenting the possibility that they could spread the virus into multiple schools,” he said. “If anyone in the school becomes sick, that school is likely to be shut down at least temporarily with no notice.”

How could the pandemic challenge testing validity?

The biggest argument in favor of large-scale testing next year has been the need for information about students’ growth and learning during the longest period of schooling disruption in more than a century. But that disruption isn’t over, experts say, and likely will make the results from any large test difficult to compare across districts and states.

To Test or Not to Test?

The World Bank, which has been studying how international education systems are responding to the pandemic, found many other countries have also canceled or postponed assessments this past spring or for next year, though some, such as Germany, have continued to test with strict hygiene protocols.

The World Bank said education leaders, in making those testing decisions, should take into account these considerations:

  • If the tests are used to make decisions such as class placements or funding allocation, school leaders must plan a different way to inform those decisions transparently and fairly.
  • If tests move online, leaders must ensure students with disabilities, those in remote areas, and those with limited internet access have equitable access to the exams.
  • If tests move to remote proctoring, leaders must consider how to ensure security and prevent cheating or test leaks.

Casserly, of the Council for the Great City Schools, explained that 25 percent to 35 percent of urban parents polled in his districts have reported they do not plan to send their students back for face-to-face instruction next year. Many schools plan to alternate groups of students using in-person and remote learning, and because some districts plan to help keep students at a safe distance from each other by using space in under-enrolled schools to house students from over-enrolled schools. In both cases, that means the students on campus during testing may not be the same as the students enrolled at the school, and the background characteristics of students who stay home versus those who attend on different schedules may differ significantly, which could skew test results, Casserly said.Some test officials are trying to plan for that reality. Peggy Carr, NCES’ associate commissioner, said that the agency planned to stagger testing days for NAEP with at least two visits per school, plus a make-up day, to capture students who had uneven attendance patterns.

“At the end of the day, there’s going to be an asterisk around any 2020-21 [test] results if they’re given,” said Stephen Pruitt of the Southern Regional Education Board, a 16-state group which coordinates around education and economic issues. “I think you have to ask the question, are people really going to even pay attention to themselves this year? If states are already considering not testing themselves, would they really give an honest effort to administering NAEP?”

How could the pandemic affect state tests for 2020-21?

The U.S. Education Department waived requirements for 2019-20 state accountability tests during the school closures this spring, and a few states, including Georgia and Michigan, have already requested waivers for 2020-21 testing as well.

“Given the ongoing challenges posed by the pandemic and the resulting state budget reductions, it would be counterproductive to continue with high-stakes testing for the 2020-21 school year,” said Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and state Schools Superintendent Richard Woods in a letter on the waiver request. “In anticipation of a return to in-person instruction this fall, we believe schools’ focus should be on remediation, growth, and the safety of students.”

By contrast, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath explicitly announced last month that he would administer the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR, next school year. Texas, one of the states that monitor student growth, will have to adjust its A-F school accountability system because it has missed this spring’s round of student testing, and Morath worried that missing two years of student data could make it difficult to understand how students have been affected by the pandemic.

“We cannot allow this public health crisis to become a generational education crisis,” Morath said in a presentation to the state school board. Schools would provide more time for students to take the online test and the overall testing window would be expanded to about 30 days, according to a Texas Education Agency spokesperson. This could allow smaller groups of students to be tested at a time; the state plans to release more detailed guidance for schools on how to test safely later in the school year.

Unlike national tests, state accountability tests are usually proctored by local teachers or central office staff, meaning that districts may be able to cut down on the number of visitors needed to enter the school building. Chris Minnich, chief executive officer of the testing group NWEA, said it is working with Georgia and Nebraska to pilot a different kind of state assessment, which would be administered in shorter chunks at three periods over the course of the year. That may reduce the time and number of students needed for testing at any given time.

Can large tests be conducted remotely?

Remote testing could provide an option for assessing students who are learning in schools with hybrid schedules but testing in a digital or online format is not the same as remote testing. While NAEP, state accountability tests such as those in Texas and Georgia, and international tests like PISA have all moved to digital formats, they do not have remote proctoring, and critics have raised questions about how quickly such a system could be up and running.

The NWEA tested about 100,000 students online this spring using its adaptive MAP Growth test, Minnich said. But he said formative assessments used to inform instruction are easier to administer at home than large-scale assessments more commonly used for research or accountability, because they require less security.

“Teachers and proctors generally receive a pretty distinct guidance about what questions they can help the kid with and not help the kid with, and I think that’ll be harder when you’re dealing with individual parents possibly at home,” Minnich said. “I do get concerned about students who have very specific accommodations not receiving those accommodations, because that actually is a big deal.”

The College Board, which had originally planned to administer the SAT remotely this summer, had to cancel because of security concerns, but in the United Kingdom, medical students successfully took three-hour “open book” medical exams with questions designed to be impossible to simply look up online.

As part of the ongoing discussions of the NAEP, former Wyoming Gov. James Geringer said delaying large-scale assessments could provide an opportunity to adapt them to align with whatever changes in instruction become permanent in the classroom after the pandemic.

“Knowledge is still knowledge ... but the nature of how we test will depend upon how education has been delivered, how equitable it’s been in terms of access for students,” Geringer said. “I think there’re going to be dramatic changes in how students learn and how they’re exposed to information … We have to deal with near-term uncertainties, but we also have to be planning for the certainty of change to how [testing] has been conducted in the past.”

A version of this article appeared in the July 15, 2020 edition of Education Week


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