3 Ways to Address Risky State Assessments in 2021

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This post comes from Danielle Gonzales, managing director for the Education and Society Program at The Aspen Institute. Views expressed in guest posts are those of the author.

More than eight months removed from the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the impacts on teaching and learning are still felt acutely nationwide. As we pass the midpoint of the school year, standardized state assessments are now looming in the spring. Yet, as in-person and virtual learning plans are being re-evaluated to address the quality of student learning, local and state leaders are asking if schools can effectively conduct tests this year and if the data produced will be valid.

This raises significant equity concerns, as standardized tests have been an important tool for gathering data on achievement in English language arts, math and science for the last 20-30 years. This data helps leaders understand how systems are supporting the achievement of students of color and students from low income families.

At a time when attention and resources are already stretched thin, using a test that cannot produce trustworthy results creates significant questions about accountability and equity gaps. Even if standardized tests are administered this spring, they cannot realistically serve as the sole gauge for student, teacher, or school progress and accountability.

As addressed in the recent brief, This is Not a Test, This is an Emergency, there are many concerns, including security and accommodations for English learners and students with disabilities. For example, accommodations requiring the participation of special educators, translators or other specialized personnel may not be available or students might need to rely on an untrained adult or family member for support.

In September 2020, the U.S. Department of Education indicated in a letter to chief state school officers that a blanket testing waiver is unlikely in 2021; but alternative data collection approaches may be considered if tests and testing procedures are unreliable. Therefore, now is a critical moment for policymakers to consider viable contingencies for collecting additional data that will not only measure content mastery but also adequately assess learning experience and opportunity to learn.

Below are three steps policymakers can prioritize right now:

  1. Address the challenges. Policymakers can communicate clearly and honestly with educators and the public about the challenges they are confronting and steps they will take to ensure teachers, students and families are sufficiently supported. Assessment specialists can be consulted to articulate the specific purposes and uses for testing and whether the noted threats have been addressed so that tests can truly provide the desired results. Communicating the ongoing commitment to equity and growth can help highlight the benefits of testing.
  2. Propose testing adjustments. When putting forward a revised testing plan, all options must be balanced against the potential misuse of tests like labeling students, excessive test preparation, over-prescribed remediation activities and risk of losing more opportunities to engage students in meaningful learning this year. Potential adjustments to testing plans can include a reduction in test length by focusing on prioritized standards and curriculum, shortening the testing window and/or testing fewer students through matrix sampling, which can produce group data to track equity gaps.
  3. Identify other reliable data sources. Even if 2021 state assessments are administered somewhat normally in schools, there will be challenges. Therefore, policymakers may turn their attention to implementing trustworthy opportunity-to-learn data collection efforts, in addition to standardized test scores. Data collected at multiple levels of the system could help identify and allocate resources to close equity gaps. This data could also focus on the support states and districts are responsible for providing to all students, including access to instructional materials and grade-level assignments, access to devices and internet, chronic absenteeism, and safe and healthy learning conditions. This will help maintain morale and legal commitments to students while answering questions families and equity leaders have about conditions impacting achievement.

State leaders are facing seemingly intractable policy choices this year, none of which are close to perfect, but thoughtfully and proactively addressing assessment challenges is key to creating equitable learning opportunities for all students.

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