The Intersection

Accountability | How to Deal with Cancelled Assessments

April 1, 2020

Updated: September 14, 2020


With the cancellation of spring 2020 assessments, states need to identify what to do in the absence of this vital information. 

The Challenge

A significant challenge in waiving state assessments is that the data is used to strategically allocate financial and human capital resources, determine student promotion/retention, evaluate teachers and school leaders, and determine school voucher eligibility. Some states also use state assessments as a high school graduation requirement.

Eliminating state assessments requires shifts across the accountability system to compensate, and might have short- and long-term impacts. Removing one year of testing sounds like an easy fix, but growth models implemented by many states require multiple years of testing data. Eliminating one year would throw off the calculations currently in place. Further, using data from the 2018-19 school year to determine resource allocations could result in inadequate funds going to the schools most in need.

Without state assessments providing a clear picture of student knowledge and performance, schools and districts must find other ways to measure the effectiveness of whatever form of instruction is being used in lieu of the traditional classroom delivery.

State accountability systems are complex. A majority of states have codified their accountability measures into state law. As a result, those states must pass legislation that addresses this issue, and some also require input from the State Board of Education. Each state will have its own method of reforming state policy to adjust for  last school year.

Policy Considerations

With the U.S. Department of Education and President Trump announcing that states can apply for testing waivers that will exempt them from last year’s assessments, states  quickly canceled their state standardized tests. States that received this waiver could also receive permission not to use standardized testing data in future school accountability ratings. States who will need accountability data are faced with three options when it comes to accountability and funding, including:

Option 1: Plug the previous year’s data into their accountability framework States would take spring 2019 data and use that to report on their performance for the 2020 school year.

This would be relatively simple for states and districts; there would not need to be any additional calculations or estimations, and schools would simply use the test scores they reported the previous year. This frees up time for educators to focus on more pressing needs, such as ramping up online learning and feeding students.

However, there are a number of concerns about the reliability of this data. It would not take into consideration any growth that students and schools had made, any changes in teacher quality or efficacy, any institutional changes school implemented, any learning loss that results from school closures, and countless other factors that can affect assessment scores. 

Option 2: Estimate scores by projecting that students would maintain their same projectile ranking as 2018-2019
In this scenario, schools would estimate their students’ scores by assuming that they would fall into the same percentile ranking as the previous year. For example, if a student scored in the 75th percentile in math in 2018-19, they would be projected to score similarly in 2019-20.  Schools could also take into consideration how students performed on interim assessments during the 2019-20 school year in an attempt to consider student growth to increase the validity of these estimates.

While estimating performance on a student by student basis would be more accurate than simply using the previous year’s data, there would still be reliability concerns, especially considering the fact that students have missed out on months of in-school learning. Additionally, this is a very labor-intensive option, as teachers and administrators would need to review prior scores for all of their students and potentially collect data to back up the estimated scores for each. This is time that could be better spent on supporting students in the present.

Option 3: Wait to administer tests until schools are back in session
This option would simply delay testing altogether until an appropriate time in the 2020-2021 school year when schools are back in session and states and districts could again coordinate the testing process. After some review, students would take the tests they were scheduled to take in spring of 2020.

While this is the most accurate option and is no more labor-intensive than it would be for regularly scheduled testing, it does not take into consideration the “summer slide.” The summer slide is the tendency of many students, particularly students from disadvantaged families, to lose their achievement gains over the summer. Postponing testing would require educators to develop a plan for scaffolding and interventions, including assessments to identify student gaps, and dedicated instructional time to strategically target those areas with review lessons and opportunities for student practice.  These interventions would be necessary in order for students to retain their learning from before schools were closed and introduce the material they did not cover with the shortened school year. Only then would the testing be an accurate reflection of student performance and growth levels.

Regardless, the application for federal accountability waivers stipulates that states agree that, “Any school that is identified for comprehensive or targeted support and improvement or additional targeted support and improvement in the 2019-2020 school year will maintain that identification status in the 2020-2021 school year and continue to receive supports and interventions consistent with the school’s support and improvement plan in the 2020- 2021 school year.”

Simultaneously, states and districts must determine a method of identifying schools that did not receive additional support in the 2019-20 school year that will need it for the current school year. Projecting student proficiency or waiting to test until a later date will provide the best opportunity to ensure that additional supports are available where needed.

In addition to accountability measures at the state level, schools and districts that are pursuing alternative instructional methods, including online learning or requiring students complete hard-copy packets, must identify their own measures to ensure that students are receiving equitable instruction in spite of the difficult circumstances. This is especially true when the primary measure of student engagement, student attendance, is no longer tenable. 

Such measures will differ on a case-by-case basis, as needs, resources, and online learning infrastructure vary greatly within states. As a result, these measures will not be suitable for comparison, instead they would simply serve as an indicator of school level accountability to ensure fidelity of implementation. That said, these measures must ensure flexibility and fairness to teachers who often lack the training and time required to transition their course to online delivery. Experts indicate that these accountability measures for remote learning must at least include the existence of reasonable, clearly communicated expectations, and consistent, high-quality student support structures.

Share This