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Assessment

Standardized Tests Could Be in Jeopardy in Wake of Biden Decisions, Experts Say

By Andrew Ujifusa — July 21, 2021 6 min read
Illustration of students in virus environment facing wave of test sheets.

A new brief from two researchers explores a question that could grow in importance as the pandemic persists: To what extent could the coronavirus intensify the pressure on—and increase public skepticism about—standardized tests in general?

To find answers or at least clues, Paul Bruno and Dan Goldhaber looked at states’ requests for waivers from annual standardized testing requirements this past spring; how the U.S. Department responded; and what trends emerged from what states sought and what the feds granted.

Their analysis involved looking at waiver requests this past spring from 11 states and the District of Columbia in which they sought to get permission to cancel statewide exams, administer tests only in certain grades, and limit which grades took certain subject tests.

In general, they found a certain disconnect between policymakers’ expressed aims and the likely impact of some of their decisions. They also said some constituencies might find notably less value in the scores than others, even amid significant concerns about the pandemic’s impact on student learning.

Ultimately, COVID-19 could intensify pre-existing concerns about the value of standardized tests and undermine political support for them, unless education leaders respond to them with the current environment in mind, Bruno and Goldhaber argue.

Bruno is an assistant professor of education policy at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Goldhaber is the director of the Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research, which is a joint project of the American Institutes for Research and scholars at several universities.

“Policymakers are not articulating a very clear story about how test results could be translated into useful, diagnostic information” for parents, educators, and the public at large, Bruno said in an interview. “If you support annual standardized testing, there are reasons to be worried that the support for standardized testing is quite soft.”

Yet there’s a contending view that the pandemic hasn’t dramatically altered basic facts about the different value of different tests, or fundamental disagreements about the statewide exams that have persisted for two decades or more.

For all the issues with state testing this year, there is “no state that comes close to saying: We’re going to take the non-statewide data and make it actionable in some way,” said Charles Barone, the vice president of K-12 policy at Democrats for Education Reform and a former congressional staffer.

The impact of the delta variant of the coronavirus on schools as they start the 2021-22 school year remains uncertain. Yet if in-person classes are disrupted significantly, that could fuel resistance to statewide standardized exams for the next academic year.

Relying on clear action plans for test scores the public understands could be key

Debate about the long-term fate of the tests intensified this past spring, after the U.S. Department of Education said it would not grant states “blanket” waivers from the exams like they received in 2020 when the pandemic first took hold. Top congressional Democrats for education policy alongside some advocacy groups pushed to maintain the testing requirement, although President Joe Biden indicated that he opposed mandated standardized testing during his 2020 presidential campaign.

Ultimately, the District of Columbia got approval to cancel the English/language arts and math exams required by federal law. All other states who sought to cancel those exams were unsuccessful, although a few did receive permission to ease their testing requirements in other ways.

The education department refused to let school districts substitute locally chosen exams for statewide ones, on the grounds that the ability to use statewide tests to compare results between schools and districts is crucial.

Yet other decisions by the department undermined the ability for education leaders to do that very thing, according to Bruno and Goldhaber. As an example, they highlighted the department’s decision to waive the federal requirement that at least 95 percent of eligible students take the annual exams. Any major variations in the share of students taking the tests between schools and districts will make comparisons challenging.

The decision by states with the department’s approval to shorten tests or to delay administering them until this summer or the fall (as New Jersey has done) further weakens the ability of schools to provide information that is important for parents to know and for teachers to act on in a timely fashion, the analysis says. And California effectively empowered districts to decide whether to give the annual state exams, based on local conditions, without actually receiving a federal waiver, a development Barone called “very dangerous.”

The lack of state test results from 2020 also makes measuring student growth in typical ways impossible, Bruno and Goldhaber note.

What we really need to do is explain how we used test scores to allocate support.

Ultimately, the department’s actions seem to have been driven in large part by a “concern that even temporarily waiving statewide tests would give momentum to those advocating for the elimination of testing altogether.”

In the February letter to states outlining the department’s position on tests, acting Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education Ian Rosenblum stated directly that aside from reasons to maintain testing related to schools’ decisions about responding to the pandemic, “Parents need information on how their children are doing.”

Bruno stressed in the interview that slogans like “we cannot fix what we do not measure” might sound nice, but they don’t really help teachers and education officials make decisions about how to use test results in a way that feels clear and important to the public at large.

In such cases, “we’re not actually thinking about how we want to design testing policies to achieve specific objectives,” Bruno said, making it less likely “that we will achieve any objectives.”

He expects to see resistance to statewide exams for the 2021-22 school year to emerge this summer and in the fall.

Barone acknowledged that it will be a problem if schools can’t turn around test-score data from last year in a timely way to make it useful for the upcoming year. However, he said the analysis from Bruno and Goldhaber doesn’t grapple with the limits of diagnostic tests that might provide information on a small scale but aren’t administered on a statewide basis.

Civil rights groups remain supportive of the statewide exams where data is comparable across official boundaries, he said, while political forces that are opposed to standardized testing will remain so.

And most states haven’t committed to using systems that rely on achievement data to inform their COVID-19 interventions to help students during the pandemic, although he noted many states are relying on chronic absenteeism.

Although Bruno and Goldhaber cite rising opposition to standardized tests in public opinion polling from PDK International, Barone said other polling shows something different.

“Parents and taxpayers are ambivalent and nuanced about testing. They also know that they want that data,” Barone said.

Those involved in conversations about state testing should be paying more attention to what states are doing under an innovative testing pilot authorized by the Every Student Succeeds Act, he added. The lessons states learn from those efforts could bolster the value of standardized tests without exacerbating political tensions about them, Barone said.

State tests provide alignment with state standards and the authority of state government, as well as the power to compare results across jurisdictions the state cares about, said Andrew Ho, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who’s proposed a way for states to report 2020-21 test scores clearly and responsibly.

But he said it would be better for officials and others to undersell what different tests can do and then overdeliver on results, rather than making grandiose claims. State test scores are “supremely useful” but can’t serve all purposes for all people, he said.

“What we really need to do is explain how we used test scores to allocate support,” Ho said. “If a district said, these test scores changed our minds and informed our decisions,” then “the stated theory of action becomes the enacted theory of action.”

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