Statewide assessments are more than just a box-checking exercise—they’re critical tools for ensuring transparency and promoting equity. Yet the 2021 assessments have been the subject of fierce debate, leaving policymakers, educators, and parents divided on the value and costs of testing students after an unprecedented school year.
Students around the country have begun statewide assessments, but questions remain about how state leaders can use the resulting data to support student success. DQC’s Allie Ball spoke to DQC President and CEO Jennifer Bell-Ellwanger, who also served as chief achievement and accountability officer for Baltimore City Public Schools. In this interview, Bell-Ellwanger explains why comparable assessment data matters for COVID-19 recovery efforts and underscores the importance of measuring student growth this year.
Question #1: What are the biggest things state leaders must still consider about 2021 assessments?
Bell-Ellwanger: With assessment season already underway, state leaders should be focused on administering assessments to as many students as possible. The next big question is what to do with the results from the state assessments. State leaders must consider which students ultimately participated in the assessments, and for those who did not, why. Did they lack access to internet, were they unable to test in person, or did they opt out from taking the assessment? Leaders will need a data point on every student: either an assessment result, or a reason they were not tested. Then, they can determine how to evaluate the results and what next steps to take.
Although state leaders rely on assessments to measure student progress, assessment data alone is not enough to fully understand where students stand and how to move forward. Information on student access to and engagement with instruction will be especially important this year. State leaders should also consider data on attendance, course access, graduation, postsecondary enrollment, and any formative performance data districts can provide. Taken together, this information will help to paint a clear picture of students’ experiences and needs across the state.
Question #2: What is so important about data from statewide assessments, and why is it different than any other performance information from local and/or interim assessments?
Bell-Ellwanger: It comes down to comparability. Local assessments add valuable context about what’s happening within schools or districts, but statewide assessments are the only tool we have to compare student performance across the state. Having that comparable data allows state leaders to ensure that resources and supports are going to where they are most needed—especially in light of the federal funds that states are now receiving.
States are also better equipped to share data from assessments with parents and the public; they have the tools to get that information out there, and they can disaggregate data and shine a light on what’s happening with different student groups.
Question #3: Some states are now pushing tests to the fall. How does this impact what we can learn from them?
Bell-Ellwanger: Fall assessments serve a fundamentally different purpose than spring assessments. When you test students at the beginning of the school year, you can see where they stand at that moment in time but it will be difficult to assess progress from the year before. When you assess students at the end of the school year, you can capture how much progress they’ve made over the past year. It’s important to have that perspective in order to understand how that timing impacts what the data tells us.
There’s also the question of timeliness. Schools and districts can use data from spring assessments to address learning gaps over the summer and hit the ground running in the fall. If states delay the administration until the fall, they won’t get the results until November or December. They’ll already be playing catch-up, making it even more difficult to address learning gaps.
That being said, maximizing the impact of spring assessments requires states to quickly turn around the results. Parents and families often feel that statewide assessments do not matter because they do not get the results for some time after the actual test administration. State leaders must ensure that parents and families receive timely data on student performance, as well as details on the assessments themselves. Being upfront about the what, when, where, and how of 2021 assessments will go a long way to build trust in the data. State leaders also need to go the extra mile to communicate how the data will and will not be used, address any gaps or questions, and ensure all data points—including participation—are disaggregated. Leaders, educators, and community members can use that information to engage in a dialogue about what we can learn from this year’s assessments and how to support students heading into next year.
Question #4: What is the most important thing that state leaders can learn from this year’s assessment data?
Bell-Ellwanger: The ability to measure student growth is one of the core reasons for continuing with this year’s statewide assessments. Growth measures are the most equitable and comprehensive way we have to measure student performance. We recognize that the pandemic has not affected all students uniformly; leaders need to measure student growth this year to understand how different student groups were impacted and where gaps persist. Even in the absence of 2020 test scores, states can still measure skip-year growth using data from 2019 and 2021 assessments. We’ve already seen states including Florida and Ohio commit to measuring skip-year growth this year. State leaders can and should use that data—along with other key data points—to guide recovery efforts and target resources where they are most needed.