Analysis: How Do You Measure a Year? How States Should Assess Student Learning in a Pandemic
For nearly three decades, annual state end-of-year tests have been a crucial element of federal and state accountability systems. However, in light of the disruptions caused by the pandemic in 2020, the federal Department of Education decided to waive the requirement for annual testing in reading and math. Since then, there has been ongoing debate regarding the merits and drawbacks of resuming testing this spring, considering the ongoing disruptions to education. The Department of Education recently settled the debate by informing chief state school officers that end-of-year tests must still be administered to all students, with the results being publicly reported. This decision is the correct one, as it is essential to have up-to-date information on academic performance in order to fully understand the impact of COVID-19 and develop effective plans to mitigate its long-term consequences. Despite the imperfections in this year’s assessment data, some data is better than none at all. Another year without assessments would hinder efforts to promote equity.
The department has given states the flexibility to make certain adjustments to the tests, such as shortening their length, administering them remotely, or scheduling them for the summer or the beginning of the 2021-22 school year. Here is what we believe states should do:
1. Administer assessments this spring: In states and districts where in-person classes are being held, there should be no issues with administering tests. In hybrid situations, schools can rotate students into classrooms safely, as they are already doing. In remote situations, many schools are already utilizing virtual proctoring to monitor test-taking. Delaying the testing window to the summer or the start of the next school year would be a mistake, as the experience of a group of New England states has shown that logistical challenges can undermine the usefulness of the results. It would be more beneficial for students and teachers to reserve fall testing for diagnostic assessments that can inform instruction.
2. Do not utilize state assessment results for accountability ratings or sanctions: The department has provided states with the opportunity to request waivers for key accountability requirements. States should take advantage of this offer. Drawing conclusions about school effectiveness based on exams administered this year is impractical, as stated by the Aspen Institute and the Center for Assessment in an October policy brief. Therefore, the results should not be used in state accountability systems, and there should be no punitive consequences or use of the results for teacher evaluation. In fact, states should refrain from producing accountability metrics this year, as they could be misused. Instead, test results should be used to target additional resources for services like high-dosage tutoring and extended learning time, including during the summer.
3. Gather data on students’ opportunity to learn at the school and district level: This includes information on access to the internet and devices for remote learning, availability of a culturally responsive curriculum, extended learning time, and high-dosage tutoring. Even basic information such as whether students were learning in person or virtually, and the amount of instruction they received each day or week, would be helpful in understanding the impact of the pandemic.
4. Invest in assessment literacy training: Assessment data are only valuable if they can be effectively utilized. This requires teachers and school leaders to have a deep understanding of how to interpret data from various sources and use them to make decisions regarding curriculum adjustments, instructional strategies, and student groupings. Additionally, some assessment-specific training is necessary to comprehend the metrics associated with interim and diagnostic tests used at the local level.
5. Prioritize students’ and teachers’ social-emotional needs: Attending to the social-emotional needs of students is always critical, but it has become even more urgent during this pandemic, considering the health risks and social isolation experienced by many. Schools should prioritize the well-being of all members of their communities.
6. Utilize high-quality diagnostic assessments to provide targeted support for each student: While state end-of-year tests are aligned with standards and are essential for promoting equity, assessments that align with the local curriculum will be most valuable for evaluating students’ needs in the fall. Teachers require timely and detailed information about individual students’ strengths and areas that require additional support in order to help them succeed at their grade level. Diagnostic assessments are capable of providing these essential details.
Title: Effective Ways to Mitigate Learning Loss: Guidelines for Washington, States & Districts
In order to prevent learning loss since March 2020, schools should utilize diagnostic assessments to accurately measure students’ current knowledge and identify areas for improvement. It is crucial to avoid the misconception that all content from the previous year needs to be retested and retaught. Instead, by employing diagnostic data, schools can prioritize the fundamental prerequisite skills necessary for grade-level success.
Diagnostic assessments should not be treated as isolated activities. States must support school districts in implementing high-quality diagnostic assessments throughout the academic year. To ensure reliability, states should establish selection criteria that prioritize excellence, offer training, and subsidize costs for districts using approved tests. They can even consider providing diagnostics to all districts or presenting a pre-approved list for districts to choose from. It is essential for districts to use diagnostics that align with both state standards and local curricula.
While statewide assessments play a significant role, this is an opportune moment for states to adopt a forward-thinking perspective. Once present challenges have been addressed, states should explore alternative methods that can enhance end-of-year assessments and assessment systems as a whole. A new paradigm needs to be established, one that focuses on key elements: rigorous academic standards, attention to social-emotional learning, a culturally responsive curriculum, and aligned instructional materials. This approach should define and drive student learning. It is important to recognize that this will require long-term commitment and should commence promptly.
About the Authors:
Laura Slover, the CEO of CenterPoint Education and former CEO of Parcc Inc., has led the multi-state Partnership for the Assessment of College and Careers. Mike Cohen, a senior fellow at CenterPoint Education, served as the president of Achieve from 2003-20 and held the position of assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education in the Clinton administration.
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