February 11, 2021
Statewide annual assessments have traditionally been an important tool used by stakeholders and states to evaluate student learning in relationship to state standards, promote school accountability, and advance funding strategies. Unfortunately, the pandemic has had uneven social, health, and economic impacts and exposed existing inequities in the nation’s school system. Further, the COVID-19 pandemic has placed unprecedented pressure on students, teachers, and administrators, as recent projections estimate that students began school in fall 2020 having lost up to 37 percent of a typical school year in reading and 63 percent of a typical year in math. There has been significant learning loss in English language arts and math, with certain student groups, especially low-income and English language learners, falling even further behind others.
Under the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, and now following its successor, the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), public schools are required to test most students in core subjects such as math and English language arts and use the results in accountability formulas. Most states evaluate districts and schools – in part – on test scores. Last spring, the U.S. Department of Education issued waivers to states for ESSA testing requirements, and states did not have to make annual accountability determinations or provide related data on state and local public report cards. State education leaders have been urged by educators, federal policymakers, and equity advocates to rethink assessment for the 2020-2021 school year. This year, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona must face the difficult decision of whether to issue another waiver of required student assessment. If granted, there will be a two-year gap in student assessment, and educators have raised concerns over such a large gap which would prevent districts and educators from analyzing state-wide comparisons.
Many states have formally requested waivers for 2020-2021, but some federal officials weigh against it. If state testing remains a requirement, state leaders must consider the way in which assessments could be administered in a safe and equitable environment. This may mean adopting new testing formats and restructuring testing timelines. However, without clear promise of standardized testing waivers, state leaders have taken various approaches to annual statewide testing for this school year.
|Virginia||The Virginia Department of Education has announced that districts have the opportunity to provide students with “local assessments” rather than statewide Standards of Learning exams in history, social science, and English writing. However, the state has not adopted these changes for science, reading, and math required by the federal government.|
|California||Grappling with distance learning, the California State Board of Education has voted to adopt a modified and shortened version of the Smarter Balanced exam required for students in math and English language arts.|
|Texas||Texas public schools will continue to conduct the statewide State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness (STAAR) exam this spring, however, the state has determined that the results will not be used to rate schools or districts.|
|Georgia||The Georgia Department of Education has voted to virtually eliminate the weight of statewide assessments on the grades of students this school year. While end-of-course exams normally account for 20 percent of a student’s final grade, they will now count for just .01 percent.|
|Utah||Utah state education leaders plan to deliver the statewide Readiness, Improvement, Success, Empowerment (RISE) exam but are still contemplating the format in which to deliver this assessment. Stakeholders consider providing a wider testing window and assigning students to arrive in shifts for in-person testing.|
The pandemic continues to pose challenges to statewide testing, including not only understanding the capability to proctor valid tests, but also ensuring the results yield reliable information about all test takers. Public reporting and related accountability systems allow states the opportunity to identify and work to close opportunity gaps, which makes the validity of statewide assessments imperative. However, as coronavirus cases continue to rise, stakeholders have expressed concern over in-person assessments and the reliability of scores and data given the variables students would face when testing at home.
Further concerns regard the tie between assessment and accountability. Separating the two this school year is necessary. Assessment data will add value to understanding what students do and do not know as it relates to state standards. Accountability measures like report card grades and educator evaluation will not be helpful this school year, and states have been moving to waive accountability requirements even if they are holding statewide assessments.
Pursue normal testing to the extent possible with necessary accommodations | In schools in which students have returned to some form of traditional face-to-face learning, states should consider implementing typical testing protocols with necessary safety precautions. Further, state education agencies should consider extending the testing window to maximize learning time or accommodate smaller testing groups.
Evaluate assessment validity | Statewide tests are often administered under standardized conditions, and testing developers determine those conditions. Standardized conditions are placed on students to be able to adequately compare student’s true skills under “standard conditions.” Alteration to typical standardization due to virtual administration or in-person format will alter the validity of the assessment. Education leaders should consider these factors and work closely with test vendors and other stakeholders as they evaluate their options.
Consider use of skip-year growth data if assessments are administered | States should consider the use of skip-year growth data as a solution to the gap in year-to-year student growth data. Skip-year growth data combines data from two-years ago and the present year to showcase student progress. This approach has been used in a handful of states and has arguably provided the same critical insights into school quality and student learning as traditional year-to-year measurements.
Adopt an equity lens | As students from marginalized backgrounds continue to be disproportionately affected by the digital divide and other inequities highlighted by the pandemic, state policymakers must consider how to ensure equitable access to equipment and materials. Further, many learners require specific testing accommodations that schools typically provide in person.
Understand capability | States considering remote assessment alternatives should also consider conducting early evaluations of capacity and capability. States should develop guidance to outlining necessary procedures, hardware, and software systems to support the administration of assessments. Further, to address the digital divide that disproportionately affects student of color and low-income backgrounds, states should work to provide funding to close gaps in access to necessary resources.
Provide learning on data literacy | When collecting data on student learning, it is critical for educators to understand the results of statewide assessment to be able to use the data to evolve instruction practices and provide individualized support to students and address their specific academic needs. Data on student learning is needed now more than ever, and working with teachers will be essential to ensure test results are used to guide instruction and acceleration for students who will need it the most.