States Grapple with Standardized Testing during Pandemic

“Teaching without testing is talking”

Girl working alone in a hall

One year ago, concern about Covid-19 closed schools nationwide, forcing then-U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to grant all 50 states an unprecedented one-year waiver on federal requirements to administer state-level, end-of-year K–12 standardized tests.

A year later, with mass vaccinations bringing hope that the pandemic may end someday soon, education officials at the state level are once again facing a decision: To test or not to test?

The Biden administration is sending a signal that it wants testing to proceed, even if in a highly altered form.

In a letter to state school chiefs, the acting assistant secretary in the office of elementary and secondary education, Ian Rosenblum, said state accountability systems “play an important role in advancing educational equity.” He requested “the maximum available statewide data to inform the targeting of resources and supports.”

But Rosenblum also told state leaders the administration would give them flexibility “based on the specific circumstances across or within the state.”

Millions of students remain out of school buildings. Remote learning remains the norm in many districts. While most state chiefs say they remain committed to gathering students for testing this spring, a few have said recently that they’re not so sure teachers should break the seal on 2021 tests.

When the Council of Chief State School Officers, or CCSSO, polled state-level testing directors late last year, the vast majority said they’re pushing ahead, said the group’s deputy executive director of programs, Scott Norton.

“States are, for the most part, trying to get the kids up there to take the test in the best way they can,” he said. “They’re just doing the best they can with the tests they have.”

A handful of states are considering fully online assessments. Many others are altering their usual administration plans “to try to get more kids into the test,” Norton said. Those include a few innovative ideas, such as extending testing windows and adding testing sessions on nights and weekends in a bid to reduce the pressure on schools. In most states, educators by law must still get students to show up for in-school testing sessions.

In Texas, lawmakers have already extended testing windows for the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR, with plans to spend millions of dollars more post-2021 to transition to an almost entirely online system. State Education Commissioner Mike Morath has said schools this spring won’t get traditional “A–F ratings,” as the pandemic “has disrupted school operations in fundamental ways that have often been outside the control of our school leaders.”

In Texas as elsewhere, educators are also scouring non-school facilities in search of socially distanced testing venues. This spring, districts can offer STAAR tests at places like hotels, rec centers, or theaters. High schoolers who don’t show up may not be able to graduate.

In Florida, state officials on February 15 said they’ll give schools two extra weeks to administer Florida Standards Assessments. In an emergency order, Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran said the expanded testing windows would “ensure that every student can be safely tested.”

In Massachusetts, state Secretary of Education James Peyser in January said the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System testing window will actually be shortened this spring. Educators will require students in most grades simply to take a portion of the test in each subject, in what state officials are calling a “session sampling approach.” Other tests, such as the state’s 9th-grade biology test, will be offered in June instead of February.

But a few key holdouts—including education officials in New York, California, New Jersey, Michigan, Georgia, and South Carolina, among others—have said they’ll ask the federal government for waivers from testing.

They would seem to have a lot of leverage to resist or at least delay testing far into the fall, as the Biden administration is highly unlikely to cut off funds to poor children in the middle of a pandemic.

In his February 22 letter, the U.S. Education Department’s Rosenblum acknowledged the challenges states face, saying they could administer shorter versions of tests, as Massachusetts is proposing, or extend testing windows “to the greatest extent practicable,” including moving test administration into summer months or even into the beginning of the 2021–2022 schoolyear.

That may not satisfy the holdouts, such as New York Board of Regents Chancellor Lester W. Young, Jr., who has said the tests “cannot be safely, equitably, and fairly administered to students in schools across the state.”

Testifying before state lawmakers in mid-February, Christine Burton, the superintendent of the Millburn, New Jersey, school district, suggested that the results of testing wouldn’t be much of a surprise: “Isn’t it obvious that there is going to be a delay in what they’ve been able to learn?” she asked. “Does standardized testing students to reveal the obvious pose an even greater detriment to students’ mental health?”

Practical Obstacles

In Michigan, Superintendent Michael Rice has said the computer-based Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress, or M-STEP, cannot be administered fairly and safely while students remain at home. For one thing, he said, many don’t have reliable Internet service or a quiet place to take a high-stakes exam.

“There’s no way to administer, validly and reliably, state summative assessments this year,” Rice told state lawmakers via teleconference at a joint House-Senate hearing in early February. He noted that, for all its bravado around state testing, the federal government shelved plans to administer the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, this year, suggesting that the issue isn’t that simple.

“If you can’t administer NAEP validly and reliably to a sample, it’s hard to imagine how we can administer and M-STEP validly and reliably to an entire student population,” he said.

The debate over whether to resume these legally required tests in many ways recreates the larger one that has played out around assessment over the past two decades: teachers’ groups are urging caution, while activists for low-income and disadvantaged students are pushing for testing to resume.

Scratch beneath the surface, however, and things get interesting.

DeVos in September warned states that they shouldn’t expect another waiver to postpone what have become longstanding, large-scale tests. But weeks later, the federal government itself did just that for NAEP, its own large-scale test, saying it would take a year off to allow for “conditions on the ground to stabilize.”

Ironically, losing NAEP until 2022 has prompted a few accountability hawks to say it’s now all the more important for schools to get results of state-level tests. Meanwhile, a few leading conservatives have joined liberals in warning about both the safety and usefulness of wide-ranging testing during a pandemic.

In the September 2020 letter, DeVos told state school chiefs that statewide assessments, “are among the most reliable tools available to help us understand how children are performing in school.” Parents, she said, deserve to know not just how their kids are performing, but also how one school’s performance compares to that of others.

Michigan’s Rice said the tests “shouldn’t be the assessment tail that wags the instructional dog, coming out of a pandemic.” Instead, he said, teachers should be given the opportunity to “pour the time into instruction, not pour the time into another assessment.” They should tend to the academic, social, and emotional needs of children struggling through the pandemic.

In January, South Carolina State Superintendent Molly Spearman said giving students the tests would add to the stress of an unprecedented schoolyear.

“I’m not against the gathering of the data,” she told lawmakers during a remote hearing January 20. “You’ve got to know where your kids are. But I think we do have a big question to say, ‘Does this pandemic, and all of these circumstances, bring us to make a different decision in the spring as to how we assess our children?’ I believe it does.”

A state House measure, which Spearman opposes, seeks to require the publication of school report cards for the 2020–21 schoolyear, but allows districts to waive school-performance ratings. The Palmetto State Teachers Association has joined Spearman in opposing the measure. Patrick Kelly, an association district director, said the time to administer statewide summative assessments “is not during the moment of crisis. It’s when the crisis ends, and we return closer to normal.”

Low-Stakes Testing

Former Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, who as White House Domestic Policy Council director in 2001 helped forge the legislation that became No Child Left Behind, said in an interview that she’s happy her home state of Texas is pushing ahead with plans to resume testing this spring.

“Both business leaders and the civil rights community know that when we don’t measure, minority and poor students get left behind,” she said, noting that Morath, Texas’ education commissioner, likes to say, “Teaching without testing is talking.”

Texas’ spring testing “is going to happen, in-person,” Spellings said. “And they’ll do it in a way that’s safe. I mean, if you can go to the grocery store, you ought to be able to go and take a test safely.”

A statewide survey last October showed that only about half of Texas’ 5.5 million students were learning on campus, but guidance the state released in January requires that students in grades 3 through 12 show up in-person to take STAAR tests this spring.

The policy director at Georgetown University’s Edunomics Lab, Chad Aldeman, said that while states should find a way to test students this spring, “I also don’t think it’s a great idea to force kids to take the tests in-person if their schooling has been all remote this year. So my preferred solution would be a shorter, online test that can be administered virtually.”

Another concern: just about every state will fail to meet an existing federal threshold that requires 95 percent of students to take annual state tests. Most school districts, of course, are struggling to get that many students to attend daily classes.

Actually, DeVos made it easy to bypass this requirement, streamlining the process to seek accountability waivers, CCSSO’s Norton said. “We know most states are going to take advantage of that,” he said.

But even as states push for testing to resume, many accountability hawks admit that the results pose problems of their own and probably shouldn’t trigger the kinds of consequences they typically do for students, schools, and educators.

In most states, graduation requirements and other high-stakes consequences will almost certainly face opposition and could be waived in the end, Norton said. Most educators and lawmakers realize that this is a year like no other, and that the results “are probably going to be somewhat compromised. You don’t want to put a lot of pressure on those scores if you’re not really sure how well they represent what the kids really know and can do.”

In Florida, lawmakers have already filed legislation to sever testing results from consequences for schools, teachers, and students.

Researchers for months have warned of dire consequences for children who haven’t been able to attend class regularly. A recent analysis by McKinsey and Company predicted that students’ learning loss could be “substantial,” especially in math. It said students would likely lose five to nine months of learning by the end of the 2020–21 schoolyear, and that students of color could end up 6 to 12 months behind their typical achievement levels.

“It’s bad,” Spellings said. “But we’re not going to attend to the problem rightly and properly if we don’t know where we are and who needs resources and who needs intervention and so on. So, in my mind, testing is absolutely necessary.”

Like many, however, she agreed that the results shouldn’t have the same consequences, at least temporarily.

Terra Wallin, associate director for P–12 accountability at The Education Trust, a Washington, D.C.-based group that advocates for low-income students, said “time-limited, narrow flexibility” is appropriate this spring.

“We think it’s really essential that we have data, both to see where people need additional supports, but also to see if there are places that had promising results so we can learn from those places and figure out how we might use that moving forward,” she said.

“We’ve seen a lot of research and estimates about the impacts of unfinished instruction,” Wallin said. “We know they’re likely to be worse for the students who already face inequities in access to diverse teachers, high-quality curriculum, grade-level content. But the only way we’re actually going to know how much this crisis exacerbated inequities is actually to measure student learning. And there’s not another tool or system in place that can allow you to do that at scale across a state.”

A Bipartisan Consensus: Defer to States

Before President Biden asked him to be U.S. education secretary, Miguel Cardona, Connecticut’s state school chief, indicated that he wanted districts to administer the state exams this spring, but that the results shouldn’t be used to rate teachers, schools, or districts.

Cardona called annual state tests “important guideposts to our promise of equity,” saying the data are the most accurate tools available to track achievement regardless of race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, English proficiency, and other indicators.

During his February 3 confirmation hearing before the U.S. Senate’s Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, Cardona signaled support for spring 2021 testing, telling lawmakers, “If we don’t assess where our students are and their level of performance, it’s going to be difficult for us to provide targeted support and resource allocation in the manner that can best support the closing of the gaps that have been exacerbated due to this pandemic.”

But Cardona also said that if conditions prevent students from being in school, “I don’t think we need to be bringing students in just to test them.”

He also told lawmakers decisions should be left up to states, including whether the results should matter in state accountability systems.

North Carolina’s Senator Richard Burr, the ranking Republican on the committee, expressed support for extending DeVos’ 2020 waivers, saying: “While we do need to know how much educational harm has happened, I’m not sure that the federal accountability system and existing state tests are the right thing in this moment.”

Burr said he expected the committee to have “an adult conversation about academic testing” for the 2020–21 schoolyear. That included a discussion about “whether we need to pause for one more year the accountability and testing requirements as we grapple with the pandemic.”

Burr said he considered it a states’ rights issue, instructing Cardona, if confirmed, not to “impose a bunch of conditions on states seeking these waivers.” He added, “Some of your predecessors thought they could use the need for waivers to bully states into submission on some of their preferred policy objectives that weren’t in the law. The law does not allow you to do that, and I hope you will respect those limitations.”

By contrast, one of Burr’s key Democratic colleagues, Representative Bobby Scott of Virginia, who chairs the House Committee on Education and Labor, has said spring exams shouldn’t be waived. “I think it is a bad idea to go into the next few months without knowing who is behind or how far behind,” he told reporters in early February. “If you don’t have any assessments, how do you know who needs help during the summer?”

Unions, for the most part, have supported continued waivers. American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten told Education Next that teachers need data about student achievement but suggested that testing students this spring could simply provide more proof points of worsening inequality. School districts that are wealthy enough to put in place social distancing and extra in-school learning spaces will naturally be places where “kids have done much better,” she predicted. “It’s hard to have a real analysis of these numbers for any kind of purpose this year.”

What the Tests Will Show

If, as is likely, the tests do go forward in most states, The Education Trust’s Wallin said families should prepare for harsh results. The data, she said, may offer stark contrasts between white students and students of color, as well as between students from high- and low-income families. “We have real concerns that the data is going to show that there have been drops or that there are larger gaps than existed before. We still think that’s worth knowing, and it’s worth giving parents and families some kind of information about how their student is progressing, rather than go two full years without getting any information of quality, or that’s consistent.”

She said the results may actually show that advantaged students, with more consistent access to instruction, did better in quarantine. The prospect of “the top going up and the bottom going down, I think, is really disconcerting,” she said. “And that’s where we want to see if that plays out. And frankly, that information is important to know when we think about driving resources moving forward.”

She advises that states not do what they usually do and take months to analyze the testing results. Rather, she said, they should act on the data as quickly as possible.

“Frankly, it needs to inform how to deal with summer,” she said. “Let’s hope for an ideal world where some students can receive in-person instruction or even continue distance learning over the summer to help make up some of the time that they’ve lost. But if we don’t have the assessment data in time to do that, it loses some of its value.”

Whether states can use the data they get to make a difference remains an open question.

Michigan’s Rice told lawmakers in February that the state’s M-STEPs are “postmortem tests” that won’t be helpful to determine what should be done, for instance, with students this summer. “By the time (the scores) come back, in aggregate, your children have moved to the next grade. They’re not helpful the way we would like tests to be helpful in education, for quick determinations of where kids are and quick movements of instruction to address those needs.”

He faced resistance from Republican lawmakers—one of them, Representative Pamela Hornberger, who represents a district in eastern Michigan, said she was disturbed by Rice’s “advocacy for what I would call a lack of accountability.”

“We have a whole group of parents and students and families across our communities, across our state, that are really struggling right now to understand why they should keep their kids in public education,” Hornberger said. “And it is a difficult sell. They feel like they’ve been shortchanged.”

Rice noted that Michigan still plans to administer less-invasive benchmark tests that state lawmakers have mandated. The benchmark “dipstick” tests will give educators a sense of “roughly where kids were coming out of a pandemic.”

That, he said, will give teachers exactly the information they need to recalibrate instruction going forward.

“Benchmarks are critical,” Rice said. “States summatives? Not so much, in a pandemic.”

Greg Toppo is the author of The Game Believes In You: How Digital Play Can Make Our Kids Smarter (St. Martin’s Press, 2015) and a journalist with nearly 25 years of experience, most of it covering education. He is co-author of Running with Robots: The American High School’s Third Century, about automation, artificial intelligence, and the future of high school (forthcoming from MIT Press).

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