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.
The debate over this year’s assessments has raised many larger questions about what state and districts should be measuring, how, and for what purposes. DQC’s Allie Ball spoke to DQC Board Member Dr. Andrés Alonso, former CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools. In this interview, Alonso discusses the need to bring different stakeholders to the table on this year’s assessments and calls for a renewed focus on content mastery.
Question #1: What are the biggest issues related to 2021 assessments that states must still address?
Alonso: The biggest issue is how to reach every student, since so many were missing this year and some have still not been accounted for. They’ll also have to account for differences in student access to instruction, content coverage, and school experiences this year. The results of this year’s assessments will by definition contain an enormous amount of ambiguity. That’s why the outcomes will provide more meaningful insights about the big picture, rather than information on specific students or schools.
Beyond technical issues, the other challenge is establishing the credibility of the results for the group of people who are most instrumental to what goes on in classrooms: teachers. If you have large groups of teachers who question the validity or reliability of these assessments, you lose a great deal of the tests’ instrumental value. There needs to be a discussion between leaders and educators about how to fairly use the information we have.
Question #2: What can state and district leaders do to get teachers on board and come to a consensus on how to handle this year’s assessments?
Alonso: It will always come down to what assessments are measuring, and for what purpose. When the purpose is consequences, then that’s where teacher opposition typically comes from. And not just consequences for schools or individuals, but also in terms of reputation and the public narrative around schools. With that dynamic, it will always be difficult to bring people together to problem solve.
However, if the purpose of assessments is to understand what happened this year, what needs to change, and how to best support schools and communities, then that allows for the possibility of action. When you’re measuring the things that communities value, there’s room for everyone at the table.
Question #3: We know there has been huge variation in access to instruction this year. How will that affect what we can learn from this year’s assessments?
Alonso: States and districts should already have an understanding of what happened in terms of access this year. Collecting this information was difficult a year ago, but by now, schools and districts should be actively gathering data on access, instruction, and engagement, as well as how specific communities were impacted by the pandemic. Smart schools and districts are already looking at this information and thinking about how to address gaps, allocate resources, and adjust practices for next year. States also have a knowledge management role here; they can aggregate all that information, and look for trends and best practices.
Taking into account all this data, state and district leaders should be basically able to predict what will happen with this year’s assessments—both in terms of participation and outcomes. To me, assessments are more of a triangulation exercise: the results show us where we were right, and were we have gaps in our understanding. When I was superintendent, I always told people that if the results surprised you, there’s a problem—you have to go back and reevaluate.
Question #4: Some states may use local assessments in districts where administration of statewide assessments is not viable. How does the data collected from these tests compare?
Alonso: Statewide assessments are shaped what’s happening at the federal level, and local assessments are shaped by what people at the community level feel matters. That’s a conversation that’s continually evolving. In recent years, we’ve seen people push to incorporate measures of social-emotional learning, school climate, and social justice into local assessments; now, we’ll likely see more indices tied to access and civic wellness.
However, this conversation about local versus statewide assessments overlooks the bigger issue: no matter what you measure, you always have gaps between wealthy and poor students, and between many White and Asian communities and Black, Brown, and Latinx communities. One of the things I hope comes out of this current situation is a renewed focus at the local, state, and federal level on what students should know and be able to do, and creating assessments that measure that. And if local leaders don’t feel that statewide assessments are doing a good job of measuring that, they need to come up with a better way.
Question #5: Is there anything else that state leaders should be thinking about in terms of measuring student learning this year?
Alonso: One thing that I haven’t seen many people talking about is how to capture what happened this year in the private sector. A lot of private schools were open this year, and it’s important to understand what happened in terms of their students’ outcomes. Of course it’s hard to compare apples and oranges, but if we only focus on what happened in public schools, then we’ll only get one piece of the puzzle.
I’m also hoping that states look for new and different ways to understand this year’s assessment data. They need to slice up the data and differentiate schools and students in ways that go beyond traditional methods. Otherwise, they’re really not doing their jobs.