Assessment Data Can Help Us Build Back Better


The Biden administration is committed to “building back better” in support of families. One part of building back must be assessing the challenges created by the pandemic, including the nationwide disruption to our children’s education. Families and educators have struggled through endless hours of virtual learning, and many are worried about how their children are faring.

The purpose of assessment, with all of its flaws, has always been to know—where students deserve more, where students are flourishing, which students are most in need. And though this is not a typical school year, we are no less in need of this knowledge about our students. In fact, the need is greater. Now, more than ever, clarity and transparency are essential.

As the former chief academic policy officer for Louisiana and as a mother of a school-age child, I urge our new leaders at the federal level not to let states skip another round of assessments, as they did in 2020. Doing so would be a disservice to educators, to families, and to students. We must, instead, temporarily untether assessment from accountability, find creative solutions to the challenge of administering assessments during the pandemic wherever possible, clearly communicate results, caveats and all, and design a pandemic recovery path for every child needing support.

What We Shouldn’t Do: Accountability

To understand the importance of administering state assessments this school year, it’s vital to separate the concepts of assessment and accountability. Assessments tell us what students know and don’t know. Accountability is about rewards, consequences, and support for the educators, often based on those assessment results. It is not uncommon for educators to conflate these two, both in theory and in practice. It’s why assessment can seem unreasonable, especially at a time like the present. And I agree: accountability and punitive consequences are not helpful this year. Knowledge about how to move forward, however, absolutely is.

What We Need to Do: Offer an Assessment

I observed the need for assessment firsthand in the spring of 2020, when schools across the nation closed their doors, first temporarily and then for the remainder of the school year. An early-elementary student in Louisiana—let’s call her “Monica”—was sent home without direction, and for weeks, got virtually no support for continuing her learning. While receiving no live or recorded instruction and no feedback, like millions of kids across America, Monica began to struggle behaviorally and academically. The school system provided her family with no information about what to do, even as the girl’s challenges escalated, so the family obtained assessments, therapy, and tutoring at their own expense; she has since shown great improvement through a targeted, data-informed plan.

Millions of children, particularly the most vulnerable ones, experienced the same disrupted learning but without the benefit of private-pay support. What is happening to the children who should have learned to read last year? To the children who were struggling academically before the pandemic? To the children who were lost—for months—from the system? How will we know what they need and how best to use our resources to help them move forward without knowing where they are academically? We need to know these answers at scale and as soon as possible. Parents shouldn’t have to do what Monica’s parents did; frankly, many cannot. The school system should be providing this information.

School systems cannot fully serve families and children without strong assessment systems to identify needs and build plans for addressing those needs; unfortunately, most school systems do not have such systems without state assessment. A statewide assessment will not solve our individual and collective challenges, but it will better define them and can inform an equitable, urgent plan for our children and our system moving forward.

More specifically, statewide assessment data serve numerous purposes at different altitudes, including:

Equipping families with the information they need and deserve. Parents and guardians are their children’s greatest advocates. At home, they often act as educators, and they deserve a reliable, timely lens, even if imperfect, into how their child is mastering grade-level skills. For many, such as Monica and her parents, assessment results can flag areas of concern or provide confirmation that students are progressing as expected. Without state tests, families are often in the dark about their children’s true academic readiness, relying only on grades and local assessments, neither of which guarantee alignment to grade-level standards.

Supporting high-quality classroom planning and instruction. School boards, superintendents, principals, and teachers also deserve a standards-aligned, rigorous look at how their students are doing. These data help educators and system leaders better understand how to support curriculum implementation, identify where deep instructional interventions are needed, and equitably direct educator expertise to schools and classrooms in need. At the school level, the data inform the structuring of teacher teams and illuminate achievement gaps to be addressed, particularly as teachers prepare for summer school or their incoming classes in fall 2021.

Directing the use of funds to build back better. The December 2020 stimulus bill provides critical aid for states and school systems, and there is likely more to come. As state leaders and superintendents make immediate decisions about the distribution of these federal dollars, it will be critical to prioritize learning loss. This is true even as leaders rightfully grapple with how to responsibly manage long-term budgets that have been impacted by local and state budget cuts. Assessment data, among other sources, should help leaders ensure the money is spent on the children who need it most to recover.

How to Test During a Pandemic

Some leaders agree we need assessments, as outlined above, but contend that administration is too difficult this year and, therefore, another skip-year is necessary. Critics argue there is no secure way to administer tests, since some students are enrolled in remote-learning models, and therefore, data would not be reliable.

With a creative approach to administration, and the appropriate flexibilities granted at the state and federal levels, it’s possible to collect powerful assessment data while ensuring security and the appropriate allocation of taxpayer dollars. Among the possible approaches, education leaders could choose one or more of the following:

Pursue “typical” testing of all students in all grades, to the extent possible and with the appropriate accommodations. In many places, students have returned to at least partial face-to-face learning or will do so by spring 2021, making typical or near-typical testing protocols possible. State education agencies could allow school systems to test later in the year than they normally would to maximize learning time or extend testing windows to accommodate smaller groups or limited technology. Moreover, Congress could incentivize typical testing by allowing a small portion of recovery funds to support the extra efforts required.

In lieu of typical testing, submit for approval an alternative testing plan that offers a statewide view on outcomes, as well as data on individual students to any family desiring information. One option, for example, could be to mandate testing for only a sample of students learning in person, as is practiced by the National Assessment of Educational Progress; students who are not part of the selected sample of testers could be given the opportunity to opt in. States may also deliver a shorter test that covers only the most critical learning standards tied to success in the next grade level to inform whether a child is on track. Massachusetts plans to use a sampling approach for students in grades 3–8, having each student take only a portion of the statewide test in each subject. States could also consider postponing the test until the beginning of the 2021–22 school year, which would be a particularly helpful adjustment.

Use statewide interim assessments where they exist. This is the least desirable and most challenging of the options, because interim, formative tests are designed for a different purpose than summative tests, which are meant to determine whether a child has mastered all grade-level content. Still, formative assessments could allow states to gauge students’ performance and increase what families and educators know. If policymakers take this route, it would be critical that they choose formative assessments that are aligned to state standards and not an off-the-shelf product that tests skills and knowledge that differ from what teachers taught throughout the year.

Fund parent access to assessment options. If school closures are too extensive this spring, or the state education agency cannot deliver an option from its assessment team, then leaders should use dollars committed to statewide testing to allow families to select from a curated list of test-from-home options. The state would need to determine the degree of alignment between the test(s) and what children were supposed to learn, but at least this option would provide parents like Monica’s with information to guide academic support.

In sum, it is not a typical school year. Some argue testing adds unnecessary, added pressure to an already stressful time. Others argue the tests won’t deliver value this year, or the money spent on assessment could be channeled to services that reach students more directly.

But it isn’t about perfection or ease; it is about building back better for our children. Yes, the tests may look different. Sure, administration will present challenges. No, the tests may not be directly comparable with past years’ results. Yet students, families, educators, taxpayers, and policymakers deserve to know where we are, as education leaders guide how we move forward. Just as managing the spread of Covid-19 requires robust, trusted data, so does our response to the pandemic’s educational fallout.

This is part of the forum, “Statewide Assessments in 2021.” For an alternate take, see “Focus on Instruction and Intervention, Not Testing, in 2021,” by Scott Marion and Lorrie Shepard.

This article appeared in the Spring 2021 issue of Education Next. Suggested citation format:

Baghian, J., Marion, S., and Shepard, L. (2021). Statewide Assessments in 2021: An Essential Lense or a Fruitless Imposition? Education Next, 21(2), 70-77.

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