March 18, 2021
Experts estimate that nearly three million students have not experienced any education since March 2020. Following the cancellation of state assessments and the waiver of state and federal accountability systems due to the COVID-19 pandemic, teachers, parents, and policymakers alike have engaged in discussions around the implications for students and schools in the short- and long-term, especially for students who are more likely to be disadvantaged by current testing systems. For this edition of Governing Principals, The Hunt Institute heard from current and former state leaders sharing their thoughts on the impact of COVID-19 on standardized testing.
“There were large scale waivers issued for testing and accountability for the 19-20 school year. In September, testing was not waived for the 20-21 school year, but the department decided it would be flexible on accountability.”
-Laura Jimenez, Director of Standards and Accountability at the Center for American Progress
Laura Jimenez shared how the Department of Education provided some guidance on test waivers but allowed states to push back timelines to identify schools that need additional support as required by law. In January, there was further guidance reaffirming no large scale waivers, but states would be provided additional flexibility. Some states have asked for waivers but were denied, and there are some still requesting waivers with no decision as yet. Schools are in a period of questioning the value and role of assessments.
“We’re going from a “Gotcha!” attitude to how can we be more informative and transparent so that parents, policymakers, and community stakeholders can make their own best decisions.”
-The Honorable Suzanne Crouch, Lieutenant Governor of Indiana
Indiana Lieutenant Governor Suzanne Crouch shared that prior to the pandemic, Indiana had adopted new standards, leading the legislature to enact a two-year hold harmless policy toward student assessments for the 2018-19 and 2019-20 school years, and then spring 2020 assessments were paused. In Indiana, assessments are tied to a letter grade of A-F, but even before COVID, there was growing consensus among education leaders that the system should be less punitive and instead focus on transparency of school performance. While the pandemic did not start this discussion, it has provided more evidence that robust and objective measures that can be communicated transparently are vital to inform parents, policymakers, and stakeholders about the state of their schools.
“We need to know what’s happening with our students and use that information to target resources, make decisions, and have a pulse on where we are as a state.”
-Dr. Ryan Stewart, Secretary of Education in New Mexico
Secretary Stewart noted that New Mexico has been severely impacted by the ability to have access to in-person learning and assessment since the onset of the pandemic. When New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham took office, she established that reforming the state’s assessments was one of her education priorities, directing the state’s public education department to revamp its assessment system. Among the requested changes is to leverage existing platforms and build opportunities for culturally relevant assessments. Unfortunately, the pandemic has overshadowed these exciting new developments, as a vast majority of New Mexico’s schools have remained in virtual or hybrid since March of 2020. Given the challenges of reliably assessing students who are engaging virtually, the state of New Mexico has requested a federal waiver to allow flexibility for how they administer state tests. Secretary Stewart stressed the importance of data to inform instruction, and shared that the state hopes to offer various means of data collection to ensure a large scale, representative sample of where students are to inform resource allocation. One option would be to allow schools, and even individual families, to opt into the statewide testing programs. Another would be to support districts in adopting common formative assessments to submit as data points. No matter how students are assessed, it is critical that teachers and school leaders have an idea where students are in order to make informed instructional decisions.
The right question should be what’s right for students. If the state or district has not had an opportunity to bring students back into school, bringing them back for annual assessment is not the right decision.”
-Dr. Monique Chism, Vice President, Technical Assistance for the American Institutes for Research
As states are working to determine the best means of providing assessments and adapting their accountability systems accordingly, they must also be thoughtful about what lessons they are taking away from the data. Dr. Chism named the challenge of making these decisions around data, and noted that states have approached these questions differently. Some experts estimate that the average student will experience learning losses equivalent to about seven months, but this number increases for Black and Hispanic students, to 10 and nine months, respectively. Educators are motivated to figure out how students are doing and support them in their learning goals, but consistent objective measures will be crucial in understanding these losses. Dr. Chism provided helpful framing with two major schools of thought with assessments. Some would argue that assessments can be a valuable tool for equity since they require alignment to common standards, and disaggregation of this data can reveal concerning trends. However, equity of access is an important consideration for implementing a high stakes annual assessment. On the other hand, others would suggest there is no evidence to demonstrate high stakes assessments contribute to addressing equity gaps and may in fact unduly shift the focus to the outcome, instead of the inputs like funding, teachers, supports, and resources. Rather than continuing with high stakes assessments during the pandemic, schools should focus on what information is needed to help teachers improve their practice. Regardless what position one takes, Dr. Chism noted that there are ways teachers can collect data and information to assess where student learning is, and policymakers must continue to consider the important health and safety concerns when determining how they want to collect this data.